Year End Checkup for Shared Prosperity in DC

January 2, 2014

End of year seems a good time to look at how the District of Columbia is progressing — or not — toward becoming One City. So I turned to the indicators that the Half in Ten campaign published a couple of weeks ago.

We do see progress, especially if we look back to the first set, which, for the most part, shows where we were in 2010. But it’s a fragmentary picture — even more so if we focus only on the indicators Half in Ten could update, as I will here.

About the Indicators

Half in Ten chose the indicators in 2011, when it reset the clock for its original goal — cutting poverty in half in 10 years.

As I wrote at the time, they reflect a broader vision — not only less poverty, but more broadly-shared prosperity. For the latter, Half in Ten defined three priorities — creating good jobs, promoting family economic security and strengthening families and communities.

It picked 10 indicators for states and the District, presumably based in part on data it could directly access or secure from other organizations.

Even so, some of the data in latest set aren’t as current as one would wish. And the good job indicators are largely indicators of people who’d qualify for good jobs, rather than the extent to which such jobs are available.

The online report is still, so far as I know, the only single source of so many figures that allow us to measure progress toward social and economic justice.

The report also provides two bases for assessing each state-level figure — a best-to-worst numerical ranking and a better-or-worse figure, based on what Half in Ten calls the “U.S. average.” This is apparently another term for the nationwide rate.

I’m a bit queasy about comparing the District’s rates to the averages. (See note below.) But I’ll use the averages because they may provide a useful perspective. The rankings, as I’ve said before, are an apples-to-oranges comparison, so far as the District is concerned.

Poverty Reduction

As you may already know, the poverty rate in the District was 18.2% last year. This was about 3.1% higher than the U.S. average, according to Half in Ten.* But it was 2% lower than in 2010.

The child poverty rate shows more progress. It was 26.5% in 2012, as compared to 30.4% in 2010. But it was 5.5% higher than the U.S. average. And that, obviously, was alarmingly high too.

Access to Good Jobs

The unemployment rate in the District 8.9% last year — 0.8% higher than the U.S. average. The rate in 2010 was 9.9%.

How much of the dip indicates more residents working is an open question, since the rate doesn’t include jobless workers who’ve given up looking or potential workers who decided not to start. We know that they’ve been a major reason the national unemployment rate has dropped.

The disconnected youth rate, i.e., the percent of teens and young adults who were neither in school nor working, dropped from 17% in 2010 to 14% last year. This is 2% lower than the U.S. average, but the same as in 2011.

Economic Security

Health insurance coverage is one of the District’s strongest points. Only 9.14% of residents under 65 and below 138% of the federal poverty line (the cut-off for Medicaid eligibility under the Affordable Care Act) had no health insurance during 2012.

This is 8.6% lower than the U.S. average and 3.92% lower than the District’s own rate in 2011, the earliest year Half in Ten could report.

The District also does fairly well on food insecurity — at least in light of the poverty rate and the high costs of housing here. During 2010-12, 12% of D.C. households didn’t always have the resources to provide enough food for all members.

This is about 1.9% lower than the U.S. average and 1% lower than the District’s initial two-year rate.

On the other hand, only 17% of District residents who were jobless and looking for work in 2012 received unemployment benefits. This is nearly 11.7% lower than the U.S. average, though about 1.5% higher than in 2010.

It’s hard to know what accounts for such a low rate. One factor probably is that many laid-off workers in our thriving restaurant, hotel and home services sectors couldn’t meet the minimum earnings requirements for unemployment benefits.

Stronger Families and Communities

Just two updated indicators in this category — and neither altogether current. One is the teen birth rate, i.e., the number of births to women between the ages of 15 and 19 for every 1,000 in this age group. In 2011, it was 41.8 — about 10.4% more than the U.S. average. But it was 45.5 in 2010.

The other indicator is the number of children per 1,000 who were in foster care. In 2011, there were 16 — about 10.3% more than the U.S. average. But the rate was 20 per 1,000 only the year before.

These are not only indicators of family and community strength. The teen birth rate is linked to child and maternal health, to high school completion and thus to employment — and to poverty, though perhaps less as cause than effect.

Similarly, growing up in foster care has been linked to a host of later problems, including some flagged by the indicators here, e.g., poverty, disconnection from both school and work.

What’s true for these indicators is true for others as well. Each gives us a measure of individual and community well-being, but the measures are inter-connected in a variety of ways.

Which, I suppose, merely reaffirms the need for a holistic approach to both poverty reduction and a more equitable sharing of the prosperity in this very wealthy country.

* The source for the District’s poverty rate is the American Community Survey’s one-year estimate. However, the one-year estimate for the nation as a whole produces a smaller “worse than” difference than the Half in Ten figure I’ve replicated. By my calculations, the figure should be about 2.3%.


Survey Affords Insights Into Lives and Views of Low-Wage Workers

December 5, 2013

It’s no news that millions of workers in this country don’t earn enough to sustain themselves and their families. Or that low-wage occupations are among the fastest growing in our recovering economy. Or that they’re ranked among the highest for projected job growth through the rest of this decade.

Oxfam America decided to shed some light on the “harsh reality” of low-wage workers’ lives and their views on key issues related to their prospects and priorities. So it commissioned a survey. And now we have the results.

For the purposes of the survey, low-wage workers were those who earned less than $14 an hour or, if unemployed, had earned less at their last job. By this measure, at least a quarter of all American workers qualify, according to the shorter, more rhetorical survey report.

Some of the survey results are what you’d expect. Some not, I think. Here’s a sample.

Hard to Make Ends Meet

A majority of low-wage workers are barely getting by, at best. Forty-two percent said their households could just meet basic living expenses. An additional 17% said they couldn’t even do that.

What’s especially significant here is that we’ve reason to believe they have a more constricted view of basic expenses than most Americans do.

When asked how much they thought a family of four would need to get by, their median answer was about $37,000 a year. The median response to a recent Gallop poll of adults in the U.S. was $13,000 higher.

Nearly half (47%) of the low-wage workers said they’d had to borrow money to make ends meet at least once during the past four years. Thirty-two percent had sold or pawned personal items during the past two.

Not Much Help From Government Assistance Programs

Only 29% of the workers had received SNAP (food stamp) benefits, and only a quarter had been enrolled in Medicaid. The report doesn’t indicate why large majorities hadn’t.

One could guess that household earnings put at least some over the income thresholds. For many who were childless, however, Medicaid would have been out of the question, even with minimal earnings.

A mere 9% of the workers benefited from publicly-subsidized housing. Much of the explanation here surely lies in the long-term gap between federal funding and need, rather than income thresholds.

Only 14% had received unemployment insurance benefits. We don’t know how many of the rest had been jobless during some portion of the two-year period the survey asked about, but do know that 70% had been laid off at least once during the past four years.

With such a large gap, it seems reasonable to guess that many, especially the part-timers, didn’t qualify for UI benefits because of their state’s minimum earnings standard.

Not surprisingly, nearly half worried about not being able to afford healthy, nutritious food for themselves and their families and/or falling behind on housing payments.

Slightly over two-thirds worried about incurring unaffordable health care expenses. And the highest percent of all (69%) worried about not having enough money for retirement, Social Security notwithstanding.

Not Getting Ahead

Sixty-two percent of the low-wage workers believe that most people can get ahead if they’re willing to work hard.

But at the same time, 76% believe that people are more likely to fall out of the middle class than low-income people to rise into it. Only 12% thought the latter was more common today.

Just half said they were hopeful and confident they could achieve their economic goals.

Their experience undoubtedly has something to do with their dim view of prospects for upward mobility. Forty-one percent said that they and their families were worse off than they were five years ago. An additional 21% said no better off.

Over half the workers (52%) had formerly had a job that paid more than their current job. The figures are considerably higher for part-time workers and those who’d been laid off in the recent past (61% and 70% respectively).

Solidly “Middle-Class” Values Anyway

The survey results confirm what Professor Mark Rank recently wrote about the “mainstream” values and behaviors of people at the bottom of the income scale.

When asked what they would do with a $2 an hour raise, 34% of the workers who’d borrowed money said they’d use most of it to pay off debt. Sixteen percent of all the workers said they’d put most of it into retirement savings.

Only 6% said they’d spend it on things like going out more often or taking a vacation.

Ninety-four percent of the workers said that performing their job well was extremely or very important for them — a higher percent than those who said this of having a job that paid enough for them to live comfortably.

While somewhat over half (57%) said that getting a college degree was a high-priority goal, 81% ranked the goal as extremely or very important for their children.

Being in the middle class was that important for only 37%, but having their children better off financially than they was a top-priority goal for 89%.

Does Congress Care?

A solid majority (65%) believe that Congress mostly passes laws that benefit the wealthy, as compared to a (mystifying) 9% who believe most of the laws it passes are to benefit low-income people.

At the same time, majorities, of varying percents, believe the government should ensure that everyone has basic necessities, e.g., enough food, health care, a roof over their head.

Should Congress decide to care about measures low-income workers think would be helpful, the survey report includes a list.

Too lengthy to replicate here. But interestingly, the largest majority endorsed school-business partnerships to better prepare students for jobs when they graduate.

The hand-up-not-hand-out crowd should love this, though I doubt they’ll care for much of the rest.


Better Poverty Measure Shows Worse U.S. Poverty Rate

November 6, 2013

We should be used to this by now. The Census Bureau has just reported a higher national poverty rate than the rate it reported in September. According to its Supplemental Poverty Measure, the rate is 16%, instead of 15%, as the official measure indicated.*

This means that somewhat over 2.7 million more people — a total of 49.7 million — were living in poverty last year. On a somewhat brighter note, the percent of people living in severe poverty, i.e., below 50% of the applicable threshold, is again lower — by 1.5% — than the official measure shows.

We again see shifts up and down for state-level rates as well.

For example, the rate for the District of Columbia rises from 19.3% to 22.7%, according to the three-year averages the Census Bureau uses for the SPM. Rates based on the three-year averages dropped in 28 states and increased more than the District’s in five.

As in the past, we also see shifts in rates for different age and race/ethnicity groups. For example, the poverty rate for blacks dips from 27.3% to 25.8%, while the poverty rate for Asians rises from 11.8% to 16.7%.

The poverty rate for non-Hispanic whites is still the lowest, but it’s higher than the official rate — 10.7%, as compared to 9.8%.

The rate changes all reflect differences between the crude, official measure and the SPM, which goes at poverty measurement in a different — and more sensible — way.

I’ll forgo another summary of how the SPM works. I took a stab at one last year and the year before. And the Census Bureau has a more extensive (and wonkish) explanation in its report.

From a policy perspective, both the overall higher poverty rate and the rate shifts are especially important because they show both the impacts and the limits of major federal benefits programs.

So far as the rate shifts are concerned, the most striking are those for the young and the old.

  • The child poverty rate drops from 22.3% to 18%, reducing the number of children in poverty by about 3.2 million.
  • For children, the severe poverty rate is less than half what it is under the official measure — 4.7%, as compared to 10.3%.
  • The poverty rate for seniors rises from 9.1% to 14.8%, increasing the number of poor people 65 and older by nearly 2.5 million.
  • The severe poverty rate for seniors also rises, from 2.7% to 4.7%.

The higher rates for seniors reflect principally the amount they spend on medical out-of-pockets, e.g., deductibles, copays.

This seems to me pretty good evidence that the chained CPI, which could still become the new cost-of-living adjustment measure for Social Security benefits, would disadvantage the 36% of seniors who rely almost entirely on them, as well as younger people who receive them because they’re severely disabled.

At this point, however, Social Security remains by far and away the single most effective anti-poverty program we’ve got. The SPM report shows that, without it, 26.6 million more people of all ages would have been poor — and the poverty rate for seniors a whopping 54.7%.

The report speaks to another issue that Congress is debating — and one that it isn’t, but should deal with swiftly.

The hot issue is SNAP (the food stamp program) — not whether to cut it because Congress has already done that, but by how much more.

So it’s useful to know that pre-cut SNAP benefits lifted well over 4.9 million people, including 2.2 million children, out of poverty last year. They were the single most important factor in the marked drop in severe child poverty, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports.

The back-burner issue is the soon-to-expire Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, i.e., cash benefits for workers who’ve been jobless longer than their regular state programs cover.

I may have more to say about this, but will note here that unemployment insurance benefits generally reduced the SPM poverty rate by somewhat less than 1% — about 2.54million people.

UI benefits have lifted fewer and fewer people out of poverty since 2009 — mainly because fewer jobless workers are receiving them, according to a recent CBPP analysis based on other Census figures.

Retrenchments Congress made in the EUC program in early 2012 are part of this story. I suppose more recent figures would show the impact of sequestration as well.

House and Senate negotiators apparently still hope to stop the across-the-board cuts — at least for while. But this is a far cry from an agenda that would bring the very high poverty rate back down to where it was when we rang in the 21st century.

* The SPM report cites 15.1% for the official measure, noting that this is not statistically significant from the previously reported figure. Several other official measure figures in the report also differ from those the Census Bureau earlier reported.

The differences, if I understand correctly, reflect the fact that the SPM universe includes children under 15 who are living in a household with adults to whom they’re not related. For comparability, I’m using the official measure figures in the SPM report here.


Beyond Poverty Reduction to Resetting the Whole Debate

November 4, 2013

Two years ago, Half in Ten relaunched its campaign to cut poverty in half in 10 years. At the same time, it broadened the goal to reflect a vision of shared prosperity.

Now it’s published its second annual update. Like the last, the update reports progress (or lack thereof) according to 21 numeric indicators in four broad categories — poverty today, more good jobs, strengthening families and communities and economic security.

But this doesn’t begin to do justice to what Half in Ten has produced. Each of the four major chapters begins with a lengthy analytic narrative, with lots of data sprinkled in the text and in graphics. Category-specific policy recommendations follow.

Then come the indicators themselves. These are amplified by graphs and tables, many of which provide race/ethnicity breakouts and/or lengthier timeframes than the indicators proper.

So we actually have many more indicators than just the 21 the campaign established as benchmarks. We also have a higher-level policy framework for the to-dos in the chapters that address them.

A forward by Sister Simone Campbell, a leading voice in the progressive faith-based community, and a concluding call to action by top executives of Half in Ten’s parent organizations give meaning to the title of the report — “Resetting the Poverty Debate.”

Both take off from the 50th anniversary of the declaration of the War on Poverty that we’ll observe in January. We’re also reminded of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington that we recently celebrated — in particular, of the inclusiveness that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called for.

There’s no way I can summarize all this in a blog post. Even a bare account of the indicators themselves would run on too long. Let’s just say, we see some year-over-year progress on a handful of measures, more backsliding and a lot of stasis.

I may return to some of the specifics. At this point, I’ll try to pull out what I see as the major messages.

The first is that increasing income inequality is a major threat — not only to progress on the benchmarks, but to the social cohesion that would generate the political will for that.

The second is that our policymakers in Congress are having the wrong conversation — a “tone deaf debate,” as co-author Erik Stegman terms it. They’re at odds over how to replace sequestration, which they agree (for different reasons) is harmful.

Where they aren’t so far apart is on the need to keep whittling down the near-term deficit, though it’s much lower than it was when we got into all this budget-slashing business.

Results from the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure show that major safety net programs and others that benefit low-income Americans have lifted millions out of poverty.

They’re threatened now, as the debate over SNAP (the food stamp program) and the renewed calls for curbs on Social Security benefits indicate.

Beyond this, we see nothing to suggest that Congress will make the investments needed to create more jobs — unless and until something resets its priorities.

Nor does it seem inclined to enact policies that would ensure that such jobs as do exist are “good,” e.g., pay enough to at least cover the costs of basic necessities and offer critical protections and benefits like paid sick leave.

Nor to invest more in education and training that would enable more low-income people to qualify for good jobs. Or to make high-quality child care affordable for those who’d still have to pay a big chunk of their wages for care at market rates.

Third, the War on Poverty reminds us that poverty reduction and a considerable degree of shared prosperity are possible.

Between 1964 and 1973, the poverty dropped by 43% to an historically low 11.1%. And “the numbers and incomes of the middle class grew steadily,” the report says — though we still had (and have) marked disparities by race, ethnicity and gender.

Fourth, we need a strategy for these times, not a War on Poverty II. The report cites changes not only in our economy, but in our workforce and demographics.

Besides, says Sister Simone, “war is the wrong metaphor” now — most importantly, because “poverty is not a foreign enemy.” It’s “woven into the fabric of our economy” as a result of developments that our policies have enabled — and the ideology that’s sustained them.

We need to reject the false notion that “our nation is rooted in individualism,” she says, and look instead to the “communal relationship” expressed in the preamble to our Constitution.

Widening wealth and income gaps generate fear. In the face of it, we the people need to “reweave society” through “conversations about our shared values and the fact that we all do better when disparities are diminished.”

We need to “reframe the national debate.” This, as I earlier noted, reaches further and deeper than the specific measures the report recommends.

And it’s finally what the report seeks to achieve. It certainly gives us a lot to converse about — and a common fact base to start from.

Highly recommended.


Surprising and Other Facts About Single Mothers and Fathers

September 9, 2013

At least half of today’s children will probably spend part of their childhood in a single-parent family. But we’re seemingly still ignorant about who the parents are and the challenges they face.

Doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot of rhetoric, of course — and a considerable amount of blame-casting.

But facts are in short supply when policymakers and other opinion-leaders turn their attention to single-parent issues — or more precisely, single-mother issues, since we rarely hear about single dads who’ve taken on the responsibility of raising their kids.

Tim Casey at Legal Momentum seeks to remedy this with a “snapshot” of single parenthood in the U.S. — the first of his annual fact sheets that deals with single parents, rather than single mothers only.

Here’s a summary of what we learn — highly selective and far less data-packed than what Casey has pulled together from the Census Bureau’s latest detailed tables and other sources.

Most single parents, i.e., those with kids in the house, are single mothers — 79% of the total last year. No surprise here.

More surprising perhaps, a majority of single parents were formerly married or still married, but separated from their spouses. Only 44% of children in single-parent families lived with a parent who’d always been single.

Also surprising, I think, is the fact that most single parents have no more than two children — and more than half (56%) only one child. Another stereotype bites the dust.

Children in single-parent families are far more likely to be living in poverty than children in two-parent families. In 2011, they accounted for 53% of all poor children.

Looked at another way, their poverty rate was more than triple the rate for children in two-parent families — 42%, as compared to 13%.

Part of the explanation for this, of course, is that the family has only one breadwinner — and apparently in many cases, little or nothing in child support.

Those breadwinners weren’t faring all that well. Just 54% were employed full-time and another 13% part-time when the 2012 census was taken. By contrast, 85% of fathers and 48% of mothers in two-parent families had full-time jobs.

Some of the working parents earned more than enough to support themselves and their kids. I suppose we all know examples. Perhaps some of you are examples.

Yet single parents are much more likely than other workers to be stuck in low-wage jobs. According to a study Casey cites, 34% of single mothers were both low-wage and low-income* in 2009.

We see the results in more current figures. In 2011, for example, the median annual income for single-mother families was $25,353 — only 32% of the median for two-parent families.

This means that the median for single mothers was well below 200% of the federal poverty line — a common definition of low-income.

The median for single fathers was $12,814, but still only 48% of the median for two-parent families.

We shouldn’t be surprised then to learn that 34% of single-parent families experienced food insecurity, i.e., didn’t always have the resources to buy “enough food for an active, healthy life.” Or altogether surprised that they were more than 80% of all homeless families in shelters in 2010.

And, alas, we shouldn’t be surprised at all that only 11% of single-parent families received cash assistance last year — yet another indicator of what “welfare reform” has done to the safety net.

In an earlier study, Casey and a co-researcher compared the status of single parents in the U.S. with the status of their counterparts in other high-income countries.

They found that single parents here have one of the highest — if not the highest — employment rate, but also the highest relative poverty rate, i.e., incomes below 50% of the country’s median.

One reason is their concentration in low-wage jobs — and what seems to be pay discrimination. Another is our relatively small investment in affordable child care and free education for very young children.

Still another is our paltry income support programs, e.g., our lack of a national paid leave mandate or a monthly cash benefit specifically to help with the costs of raising children.

And then there’s our Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Even when combined with SNAP (the food stamp program), it provides, by far and away, the least assistance, as measured by percent of median income.

We purport to be all far families and the well-being of our nation’s children. But our policies say otherwise.

We don’t, I think, need more enlightened policies specifically for single parents. But we do need policies that recognize the realities of family life today, including the fact that a lot of them have — or will have — only one parent present.

* Low-wage here means less than two-thirds of the median hourly wage for the state. Low-income, as often, is less than 200% of the federal poverty line.


New Food Insecurity Figures Bolster Case Against Food Stamp Cuts

September 6, 2013

The just-released U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual food security report is a half-empty, half-full story.

The half-full part is that the food insecurity rate, i.e., the percent of households that didn’t always have enough food to support “an active, healthy life for all members,” wasn’t significantly higher in 2012 than in 2011 — and in fact, has remained basically flat since the recession set in.

This is also true, though only since 2009, for what USDA terms the “very low food security” rate, i.e., the percent of households where at least one member sometimes had to skimp on or skip meals because there wasn’t enough food for everyone.

The half-empty part is that the rate hasn’t dropped. So a very large number of people, including children, were at risk of hunger — or sometimes actually hungry — because they (or their parents) couldn’t afford to buy enough food.

Needless to say (I hope), both the food insecurity rate and the very low food security rate were considerably higher last year than in 2007 — one of many indicators that the Great Recession caused significant, continuing hardships for lower-income Americans.

Almost surely greater hardships than the figures show because, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes, the survey USDA uses doesn’t include homeless people.

Here are some of the top-line figures, a handful of breakouts and a few remarks on policy implications.

The Big Picture

  • 17.6 million U.S. households (14.5%) were food insecure in 2012.
  • Of these, more than 6.9 million (5.7%) had very low food insecurity.
  • Well over 48.9 million people were food insecure and about 17.2 million of them sometimes without enough to eat.
  • About 8.3 million children (11.3%) lived in households where they and/or other children were food insecure.
  • And though adults generally protect children from hunger, 977,000 children and/or their siblings didn’t always get enough to eat.

Demographic Disparities

Not surprisingly, food insecurity rates mirror disparate poverty and unemployment rates. Thus, for example:

  • The food insecurity rate for black households was more than double the rate for white, non-Hispanic households — 24.6%, as compared to 11.2%.
  • The food insecurity rate for Hispanic households was nearly as high as the rate for black households — 23.3%.
  • The food insecurity rate for single-mother families was 35.4% and the very low food security rate 12.7% — nearly four times the rate for married-couple families.

Also not surprisingly, state food insecurity rates varied markedly — from 20.9% in Mississippi to 8.7% in North Dakota, which weathered the recession remarkably well.

The food insecurity rate for the District of Columbia was 12% and the very low food security rate 4.5%. As with the state rates, these are two-year averages to compensate for the relatively small survey sample sizes.

Worse to Come?

Half the households with incomes below 130% of the federal poverty line — the standard gross income cut-off for SNAP (food stamp) eligibility — received SNAP benefits all year and were nevertheless food insecure.

Confirmation, were any needed, that SNAP benefits are, for many families, too low now.

Yet, unless Congress does something unexpected, all SNAP households will lose a portion of their benefits in November. They’ll have, on average, less than $1.40 per person per meal — hardly enough for “a healthy, active life.”

Meanwhile, the House Republican leadership seems ready to introduce the missing nutrition part of the Farm Bill it passed in July.

A briefing paper Majority Leader Eric Cantor recently circulated indicates that, as expected, the proposal will cut SNAP by $40 billion or more over the next 10 years.

At least four million and perhaps as many as six million low-income people would lose their benefits, according to CBPP estimates.

At the same time, about 210,000 children would lose their eligibility for free school meals because it’s tied to their family’s participation in SNAP.

I’d like to hope, but really don’t that the USDA report would give House Republicans pause.

What it could do is drive another nail in the coffin of a split-the-difference compromise between the House and the Senate, which passed a Farm Bill with a much smaller SNAP cut.

Not that any cut is called for, mind you. We’ve already got 12.7 million more food insecure people in America than we had in 2007. And even the lower number speaks ill of a country with as much wealth as ours.


Over a Million and a Half U.S. Families Live on $2 Per Person Per Day — Or Less

July 15, 2013

The World Bank draws one of its “extreme poverty” lines at $2.00 per person per day — the equivalent of $2,190 a year for a family of three.

This is a level of deprivation we associate with villages in sub-Saharan Africa or the slums of New Delhi. It’s about 12% of the Census Bureau’s official poverty threshold for the three-member family.

But by one measure, an estimated 1.65 million U.S. households with children were at or below the Bank’s threshold in 2011 — 4.3% of all households with children headed by someone who wasn’t elderly.

This is the headlined finding of a newly-published paper by sociologists Luke Shaefer and Kathryn Edin (yes, the same one whose work I used for my post on unwed fathers).

They came to their project from Edin’s earlier interview-intensive studies of poor single-mother families. “She mentioned that she felt like she was going into more and more homes where there was really nothing in income,” Shaefer says.

So the two decided to find out how many families were in such straits and how they survived.

To do this, they analyzed years of data from the Census Bureau’s ongoing Survey of Income and Program Participation, using the Bank’s $2.00 a day threshold.

They started in 1996, just before states began implementing “welfare reform,” and ended in 2011, when the Great Recession was officially over, but not its effects on the labor market.

Various complex statistical maneuvers I won’t even try to account for. This paper is not for popular consumption.

What we need to know to understand the findings is that the Shaefer-Edin team looked at households in extreme poverty based first on their cash income, including what they received (or didn’t) from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program and the program it replaced.

They then sequentially added in the largest federal means-tested benefits — SNAP (the food stamp program), housing subsidies and refundable tax credits, i.e., the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit.

The results clearly document what the team refers to as “the virtual disappearance of a cash safety net for non-workers.” Also, I should add, for some low-wage workers without full-time, year round jobs.

In 1966, cash assistance lifted about 1.15 million families above the extreme poverty line in any given month. By mid-2011, it lifted only about 291,000.

Though means-tested benefits expanded over this period, they couldn’t offset the combined impacts of the deliberate shrinkage of welfare caseloads and the recessions and sluggish recoveries during the 2000s, including the last and biggest.

We see, for example, that extreme poverty among households with children increased by 50%, even when all the means-tested benefits are factored in.

For single-mother families — the single largest type in TANF — the extreme poverty rate increased by nearly 68%, again after adjustments for the means-tested benefits.

Leave them out and the increase soars to 229% — a clear reflection of the end of a cash assistance guarantee for extremely poor families.

On the brighter side, SNAP reduced extreme poverty among households with children by 48% in mid-2011. This is with the soon-to-expire benefits boost that was part of the Recovery Act.

Fold in the rest of the means-tested benefits and 2.38 million children lived in families where they and their parents had somewhat more than $2.00 a day to live on.

But 1.17 million children still didn’t.

No policymaker, I suppose, deliberately decided to let any of America’s children live at a poverty level defined as “extreme” for developing countries.

But our policymakers share bipartisan responsibility because they decided to focus anti-poverty efforts on “the working poor” and let families headed by parents with the greatest barriers to ongoing gainful employment fend for themselves.

We see this in the Census Bureau’s own poverty figures.

In the past two decades, Shaefer and Edin report, families in deep poverty, i.e., below 50% of the applicable threshold, have received substantially less aid from public programs, while those at 50% to 150% of the threshold have, on average, gotten more.

Thus, the team concludes, “our current major safety-net programs are blunting some of the hardship that … households ["at the very bottom"] would otherwise face. However, it would be wrong to conclude that the U.S. safety net is strong, or even adequate.”

We knew this, of course, but perhaps not how shockingly inadequate it is.


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