What Could Cut the Poverty Rate Right Now

February 20, 2014

A nice, short video from the Half in Ten campaign tells us five things we can do to cut poverty today. They’re actually four things Congress can do — and one that it shouldn’t.

They’re all modest, middle-of-the-road proposals, reflecting both pending legislation and priorities identified in the President’s latest State of the Union address. That alone should tell you that they won’t have an easy time getting through Congress, though polls indicate bipartisan support from voters.

Here they are, with supporting details from the video and others I’ve added.

Create Jobs. What Half in Ten has in mind here are investments in renewable energy, other “growth sectors” and infrastructure projects, e.g., repairing our pot-holed roads and crumbling bridges, improving public transport.

We’re still 7.7 million jobs shy of the number needed to bring the unemployment rate down to its pre-recession level — 600,000 fewer than when the video was created, but still a daunting number. The recommended investments would help close the gap — as might the next thing, according to many economists.

Raise the Minimum Wage. In other words, Congress should pass the Fair Minimum Wage Act, which has been awaiting a vote for about a year and a half now.

As I’ve written before, the bill would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by 2016 and then link it to a commonly-used consumer price index so that it wouldn’t again lose purchasing power due to inflation.

The bill would also, over a longer period of time, raise the federal tip credit wage — now and since 1991 stuck at $2.13 an hour — to 70% of the regular minimum wage and then link it to preserve this ratio.

In the late 1960s, Half in Ten says, the minimum wage was enough to lift a family of three out of poverty. A full-time, year round job at the federal minimum wage now pays less than the federal poverty line for a two-person family.

Expand Access to High-Quality Pre-K and Childcare. This, as you probably know, is a high priority for the President and a broad spectrum of advocacy organizations. They’re focused especially on children in low-income families, more than half of whom start school at a disadvantage — and never catch up.

A bill reflecting the Obama administration’s proposal — the Strong Start for America’s Children Act — would make pre-K available for more low-income four-year-olds and, at the same time, establish quality standards. It also seeks to raise quality in programs for younger kids.

The Half in Ten video, however, focuses on the immediate pocketbook issue. Low-income families, it says, spend, on average, 40% of their income on childcare. More money for publicly-funded programs and/or subsidies to help pay the rates other programs charge would obviously leave more leftover for other needs.

Make the Workplace Family Friendly. Three priorities here. One is mandatory paid sick leave for the more than 40% of private-sector workers whose employers don’t see fit to grant it voluntarily. The percent in roughly double for low-wage workers, who can least afford to take unpaid leave.

A second priority is paid family leave so that workers can take time off for a broader range of compelling reasons, e.g., childbirth, a sick family member in need of care. Only 212% of workers have this benefit now.

And of the 59% who have an unpaid family leave guarantee under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, about two million need, but can’t afford to take it, according to a recent survey.

A bill now pending in Congress would take care of both these issues — and without adding a penny to the federal debt, says one of the cosponsors.

The third priority is legislation to further strengthen the Equal Pay Act. Women still earn only 77 cents for every dollar men earn. Various reasons for this, but an estimated quarter to a third of the gap may reflect discrimination.

Don’t Make Poverty Worse. In other words, Congress is to refrain from further cuts to programs that provide cash or near-cash benefits to people in need.

Half in Ten flags SNAP (the food stamp program), which, as you know, was recently cut. It lifted nearly five million people above the poverty threshold in 2012, according to the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure.

Also flagged are unemployment insurance benefits, which lifted more than 2.4 million above the poverty threshold.

So Congress will surely make poverty worse if it doesn’t renew the recently-expired Emergency Unemployment Compensation program — or does, but trims it back again. The former seems more likely than the latter, unless Republicans rethink their position.

This is, in a way, a sad agenda because it’s largely based on pending legislation, which is largely based on what stands at least a remove chance of passing in this highly-divided, deficit-obsessed Congress. Sad also because chances seem pretty remote for much of it.

But one never can tell. So the thing we can do right now is to weigh in with our elected representatives on these five things — unless, of course, we’re disenfranchised District of Columbia residents. Sigh.


Low-Income Men in Prime Years Face Multiple Barriers

January 23, 2014

“Over 15 million men between the ages of 18 and 44 cannot afford to support a family,” writes Margaret Simms, one of the coauthors of a series of studies the Urban Institute has conducted for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

These are men who had no college degree and lived in families with incomes below 200% of the federal poverty line during 2008-10. The total number of low-income men “in their prime years,” so defined, was 16.5 million.

This is about 3 million more than in 2000. And it represents a somewhat larger share of men in the age group. They are, as one of the Institute’s studies says, “disconnected” or at risk of becoming so.

Figures in another of the studies bear this out. For example:

  • Only 61% of the men were employed during the three-year period and only 45% full-time, year round.
  • Of those who worked, 37% made less than $10,000 a year — below the poverty line for a single person.
  • A mind-boggling 85% made less than $25,000.

Yet 77% of the men were counted as part of the labor force, meaning they were either working or looking for work at the time the Census Bureau conducted the surveys the Institute used.

So there seem to have been far more at risk of disconnection than actually disconnected — at least, so far as work is concerned. Disconnection from family is another matter.

Fewer than half had ever been married. And only 32% were during the 2008-10 period. But one gathers from what Simms says and from discussion at a symposium the Institute conducted that a far larger portion are fathers.

Most would like to be breadwinners and involved in their children’s lives, according to the experts who participated. But, as we know from other research, they’re hindered by low earnings and poor prospects.

Belonging to this disadvantaged group is not an equal opportunity. The men are disproportionately black and Hispanic — 48% of the Institute’s target group when counted together.

Simms cites two critical factors that help explain this — though we shouldn’t altogether discount plain old race discrimination in the labor market.

For the group as a whole, one reason for the dismal employment and earnings figures is insufficient education. Nearly a third had no more than a high school diploma or the equivalent. And 29% didn’t even have that. But the latter was true for half the Hispanics.

With or without the formal education credentials that could qualify them for ongoing, decent-paying jobs, many can’t get a foot in the door because they’ve spent time in prison.

Though the incarceration rate for young non-Hispanic white men has risen somewhat since 1980, it’s risen more for Hispanic young men — and soared for those who are black.

In 2008, 11.4% of all black men between the ages of 20 and 34 were behind bars. This is well over six times the rate for non-Hispanic white men in the same age range and about three times the rate for their Hispanic counterparts.

Simms concludes that “another door must open.” Both public and private-sector policies must change to lower the employment barriers for ex-offenders.

As important as this is, I think, as do many others, that we also need to change our incarceration policies — and to eliminate what looks for all the world like race discrimination in both sentencing and the way some local law enforcement authorities go about their business.

The Institute’s findings also cry out for reforms in our education system — from pre-K through college. These obviously must include opportunities for adults to make up for what they didn’t learn, whether because they dropped out, were pushed out or graduated with only minimal basic skills.

Even this agenda is, I think, too narrow. Perhaps the Institute’s studies will culminate in something more satisfactory.


Early Investments Can Give Low-Income Kids a Better Chance for a Better Life

June 5, 2013

The research I recently wrote about makes a persuasive case for lifetime income inequalities that begin when children are very, very young.

But, as the title of this post suggests, we can choose to mitigate the disadvantages low-income children are born to. President Obama has proposed a multi-part initiative that would give a boost to some programs that do.

Rich and Poor Beginnings

Unequal life opportunities begin even before children are born. Studies tell us that poor mothers are less likely to get good prenatal care or enough of the right kinds of foods.

For these and other reasons, e.g., high levels of stress, they’re more likely to give birth to babies who weigh very little. These babies are at high risk for physical and learning disabilities — and ultimately chronic illnesses.

Other seeds for long-term economic disadvantage are also health-related, as the Academic Pediatrician Association’s summary of the “life-altering effects” of child poverty shows.

Still others have to do with how parents raise their kids — how much time they spend talking to them, answering their questions, playing with them, reading to them, etc. Or if not they, then other caregivers.

Highly-educated parents — mainly mothers — make a greater investment of time in such activities than mothers with less than a high school degree, even though they’re more likely to be employed.

One pay-off, according to an oft-cited study, is that young children of well-off parents hear about three and a half times as many words per hour as those of poor parents.

The more words the children heard, the better their performance when they got to the fourth grade.

A Better Start for Low-Income Kids, But Not Enough of Them

Early childhood education programs — for both parents and their kids — can help compensate for some of the disadvantages that cause poor children to get left behind, even before they start first grade.

Voluntary home visiting programs, for example, help low-income parents raise children who will enter kindergarten healthy and with the skills their well-off peers usually have.

A recent Washington Post article focuses on a fine example of one of these. “Preschool in its earliest form,” the writer calls them.

High-quality child care can make an important difference as well. But it’s inordinately costly for low-income parents who don’t have vouchers to subsidize it, as most apparently don’t.

And even if they could get a voucher, they might not find a suitable slot. In the District of Columbia, for example we’ve got waiting lists because providers don’t get reimbursed for their costs.

The Early Head Start program offers an alternative for low-income children under three. And like regular Head Start, it addresses their health and nutrition needs, as well as their social and intellectual development.

But in 2010, it served fewer than 4% of eligible children. And this was a year when the program had an infusion of money from the Recovery Act.

Head Start itself reached only about two-fifths of the children eligible, according to the National Women’s Law Center’s estimate.

In fact, only 65% of four year olds in the lowest income bracket go to preschool at all, as the Commission on Equity and Excellence in Education recently reported. And it’s often low quality, the Commission adds.

The participation rate is even lower for the poorest three year olds — about 42%.

But states are spending less on pre-K. Total funding dropped by more than $548 million in the 2011-12 school year alone.

And, as you’ve undoubtedly read, an estimated 70,000 low-income preschoolers will get fewer — and in some cases, no — services from Head Start, thanks to sequestration.

President’s Early Childhood Initiative

President Obama’s proposed Fiscal Year 2014 budget includes an initiative billed as an Early Education for All Americans plan.

As CLASP reports:

  • Most of the money — $75 billion over 10 years — would go to states that agree to expand preschool slots for four year olds whose families are at or below 200% of the federal poverty line.
  • A $1.4 billion investment would expand child care slots for infants and toddlers. These would provide full-day care in programs that agree to meet the quality standards set for Early Head Start.
  • Another $750 million would fund competitive grants aimed at giving states incentives — and some help — to expand their preschool programs and, if needed, beef up quality.
  • And $15 billion would expand home visiting programs for at-risk children.

To fund the preschool part, the President wants Congress to increase the federal tax on tobacco products.

You can imagine the pushback — from the tobacco companies, corner stores and, of course, Republicans in Congress who oppose all tax increases (except for low-income families).

So the President’s proposals face an uphill battle, as they would even if the funding source were different.

They’re no magic bullet. But they’d do a good bit to help ensure that, in his words, “none of our children start the race of life already behind,” as so many poor kids do now.


Why Are Poor Children Still Getting Left Behind?

May 23, 2013

Professor Sean Reardon tells us some things we may not have known about something we thought we did.

We all probably knew that children with rich parents do better in school than children from poor and near-poor families.

We find evidence in standardized test score differences between schools in wealthy and poor neighborhoods.

Here in the District of Columbia, for example, math and reading proficiency rates have generally risen at schools in the wealthiest wards and dropped in the rest, especially the very poorest.

We see the same income-based disparities in scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, which are broken out to let us compare those for students whose families are poor enough to qualify them for free or reduced-price school meals with those for the rest.

And, Reardon adds, in scores on SAT-type tests.

Well, the school reform movement is supposed to do something about this — hence the decision to name the law that’s brought us our high-stakes testing regime “No Child Left Behind.”

It obviously hasn’t closed the education gap between poor children and the rest. But Reardon’s analyses show this isn’t because poor children aren’t scoring higher on the achievement tests we use to measure classroom learning.

It’s because rich children are scoring a whole lot higher than they did in the 1980s — so much so that there’s now as big a gap between their scores and those of middle-class children as between the scores of the latter and those of the poor.

Reardon traces the gap back to children’s earliest years. Rich children, he says, are starting kindergarten better prepared to learn — thus ahead of the rest when they get to first grade.

Children from poor families start school at a disadvantage, according to a Brookings Institution analysis.

Fewer than half have the “pre-academic skills,” e.g., the ability to recognize letters and numbers, and the sorts of learning-related behaviors that make them ready for kindergarten, e.g., the ability to pay attention and not act out.

By fourth grade, 83% of them test below proficient in reading — in other words, don’t demonstrate the competency they’re supposed to have. Nearly half test below basic, i.e., don’t have even a partial mastery of the requisite grade-level skills.

Fourth grade is when children are supposed to begin reading to learn, rather than learning to read. If they can’t read, they fall further and further behind.

They get frustrated, of course — whether held back, as they may be in 14 states, or passed on to a higher grade, where they can’t do the work. Needless to say, they’re likely to drop out and become part of the next generation of poor parents.

Like others, including the Brookings expert, Reardon attributes school readiness in part to what parents spend on “cognitively stimulating experiences.”

Wealthy parents, he says, are now choosing to spend much more on those experiences because “educational success is more important than it used to be, even for the rich.”

The spending he’s talking about isn’t just money for things like top-notch child care and pre-school education. It’s time taking kids to interesting places, reading to them, talking with them, etc.

Poor and middle-class parents are spending more on these than they used to, he says, but not nearly as much more as the rich.

So we need a multi-pronged strategy to “move toward a society in which educational success is not so strongly linked to family background.”

Reardon is altogether on board with making high-quality child care and pre-school available to poor and middle-class children, as the President’s proposed budget seeks to do.

Reardon also recommends expanding programs that help low-income parents learn how to “become better teachers,” e.g., through home visits by professionals or trained peers who help them understand their children’s developmental needs and how to meet them.

Some money in the President’s proposed budget for this also.

And Reardon would like to see “greater business and government support for maternal and paternal leave” — this, I trust, means paid leave parents can use to tend to their children’s needs.

All these things would undoubtedly help, though many poor parents would still be hard put to make the investments Reardon rightly thinks would help level the playing field for their kids.

It’s one thing to know you should read to your children and talk to them, even before they’re old enough to understand what you’re saying. Quite another to do this when you’re working multiple jobs because one doesn’t pay enough.

When you’re trying to figure out where the next meal will come from, now that you’ve run through your family’s food stamp allotment — or where your family will sleep now that you’ve gotten an eviction notice.

When you yourself don’t know how to read, as approximately 32 million adults in this country don’t.

This isn’t to say that all poor children will struggle in school. Some will do extremely well, as others have in the past.

But the growing body of research tells us that far more will be left behind if we wait till they’re six — and then focus mainly on getting them up to speed for the standardized tests that No Child has made so inordinately important.


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