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.


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.


New DC Poverty and Shared Prosperity Figures Show Uneven Progress

December 3, 2012

Last week, I took a crack at the Half in Ten campaign’s updated poverty reduction and shared prosperity indicators for the nation as a whole. It’s also updated a smaller set for each state and the District of Columbia.

Here then is what we can learn from the new figures for the District.

We can look at these in a couple of ways — in comparison to last year’s or to the same indicators for the whole country. We can also see how the District ranks among states.

But the District isn’t a state. And however much it deserves to be one, comparisons to other large cities rather than to states as a whole would be more appropriate for issues like Half in Ten’s.

So let’s just look at the indicators themselves.

On the whole, we see more progress than backsliding. But — no news to any of you, I guess — the District has a long way to go on both the poverty and shared prosperity fronts.

For some indicators, the progress would be expected.

For example, the official poverty rate for the District dropped, though it was still well above the national rate. Ditto for the unemployment rate.

We see progress that can’t be attributed simply to the improving economy, however. The backsliding calls for other — or at least, more complex — explanations too.

Good Jobs

In addition to the unemployment rate, Half in Ten provides a handful of indicators for the employment prospects of relatively young District residents. Forward movement across the board:

  • The percent of freshmen who completed high school in four years increased from 56% to 62.4%* — far below the nationwide 75.5% rate, but progress nonetheless.
  • The percent of “disconnected youth” dropped by 1%, leaving us with nine out of every hundred youth who were neither working nor in school.
  • The already-high percent of young adults (25-34) with at least a two-year college degree rose to 62.7%.

Stronger Families

The good jobs indicators clearly relate to child, youth and family well-being. Unlike these, the indicators Half in Ten puts in the strengthening families category are a good news/bad news story.

In the good news part, the rate of births to teen mothers dropped from 50.9 to 45.4 per 1,000. Still considerably above the national 31.3 rate, but moving in the right direction.

And the percent of residents without health insurance dropped to 6.9% — well below the 15.7% national rate, which also registered a drop last year.

In the bad news part, the pay gap between men and women workers reportedly grew — and by a lot.** In 2010, it was considerably smaller than the nationwide gap. Last year, it was bigger.

And the rate of children in foster care rose from 18 to 20 per 1,000. Notwithstanding what I said about the rankings, I can’t resist noting that the District’s rate is far higher than any state’s.

Economic Security

Good and bad news for indicators in this category also.

On the good news side, the rate of food insecure District households dropped from 13% to 10.9%, while the nationwide rate rose.

And the percent of jobless District residents who received unemployment insurance benefits shot up from 36.3% to 64% — at least in part due to program reforms the District adopted to get its share of the reward money offered by the Recovery Act.

On the bad news side, the percent of District households without bank accounts — a measure of asset-building capacity — rose from 24.4% to 41%.

Might the marked increase have something to do with the new fees banks are charging — or their higher minimum balance requirements?

One economic security indicator that looks very positive is, I think, misleading.

We’re told that the number of rental units for very low-income households increased from 53 to 77 per hundred — almost 20 more than the nationwide rate.

How could that be when we know we’ve got an affordable housingĀ  crisis here?

The answer lies in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition of “very low-income,” i.e., at or below 50% of the median income for families in the area.

The area HUD carves out for the District includes nearby suburbs populated by very well-off folks.

A median income for the District alone would put more units out of reach — even more if Half in Ten had linked its indicator to “extremely poor households,” i.e., at or below 30% of AMI.

Half Full, Half Empty and Now What?

So we’ve got progress on more indicators than not. But we’ve still got well over 109,000 poor District residents and lots more who aren’t getting a share of that prosperity that parts of our envisioned One City enjoy.

Our local officials could move some indicators in the right direction — or further in the right direction.

But much depends on what Congress decides to do about tax revenues and spending cuts in whatever bargain emerges to pull us back from the so-called “fiscal cliff.”

________________________________________

* These figures are for the 2007-8 and 2008-9 school years. After Half in Ten published its update, the U.S. Department of Education released high school graduation rates for 2010-11. These are the first set to reflect a standardized calculation method for all states.

The District’s on-time graduation rate was 59% last year. This, at the very least, raises questions about the prior progress shown.

** The wage gap figure Half in Ten provides is significantly greater than the gap reported by the American Association of University Women. Part of the difference derives from how annual earnings are calculated, but there’s got to be some other factor too.


Mixed News on Progress Toward Poverty Reduction and Shared Prosperity

November 26, 2012

A year ago, the Half in Ten campaign restarted the clock for cutting poverty in half in 10 years.

As I wrote at the time, it also expanded the goal to include growing a more inclusive and economically secure middle class. It set three top priorities for achieving this — each fleshed out in specific strategies.

Half in Ten established indicators to measure progress (or lack thereof) toward both the poverty reduction and new priority goals.

The first set of figures — mostly 2010 data — were the baseline. Now we’ve got a first year’s worth of updates.

So how are we doing? Not easy to answer within the compass of a blog post.

The full report includes 21 indicators — some new and some reflecting fairly old data because sources either haven’t been updated or lag behind even Half in Ten’s base year.

Half in Ten has a summary of the full set. Also a handful of indicators online.

I’d planned to plow through the online set, using last year’s report for baselines.* But I felt I was losing the forest in the trees. Some of the more interesting indicators too.

A different approach, therefore.

Poverty Reduction

No progress here, as you probably already know. Both the official poverty rate and the somewhat higher rate based on the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure were essentially flat for the two-year period.

Meanwhile, income inequality increased. In 2011, the richest 5% of households got 22.3% of all earnings. The bottom two-fifths got just over half as much — 11.6%.

Good Jobs

Some of the indicators in this group don’t speak to the goodness of jobs, but rather to the issue of whether people have jobs at all.

Generally progress there — except for people with disabilities, whose employment rate dropped from 28.6% to 27%.

More consistent progress on indicators reflecting the employment prospects of young people. For example, the percent of high school freshmen who graduated in four years had increased, as of the 2008-9 school year.

But when we turn to workers in low-wage occupations, we see a partial explanation for the widening income gap.

For full-time workers in service occupations, median annual earnings were just $24,300 — less than $2,000 over the poverty line for a family of four. There’s been no real dollar increase for them since 2000.

Lack of paid sick leave is one — though far from the only — factor depressing yearly earnings for low-wage workers.

In 2011, only 36% of workers earning no more than $11.13 per hour, i.e., slightly below the median or less, had any paid sick leave benefit. This is 4% less than in 2010, suggesting that a lot of not-good jobs got worse.

Strong Families and Communities

Most indicators in this group relate to the current and prospective well-being of children and young adults. And they all moved in the right direction in 2011.

We see, for example, that the teen birth rate continued its downward slide, reaching a record low of 31.3 births for every thousand women in the 15-19 age bracket.

And the percent of people without health insurance dropped from 16.3% to 15.7%. We can credit this to the initial impacts of the Affordable Care Act, Half in Ten says.

Economic Security

End of moderately good news. Only one indicator — food insecurity — remained relatively flat. And even that increased from 14.5% of households in 2010 to 14.9% in 2011.

The percent of jobless workers who received unemployment benefits dropped by 10% to just over half.

Low-wage workers faced a growing affordable housing shortage. In 2010, there were only 58 affordable units available for every 100 very low-income renter households. This is four fewer than in 2009.

No relatively current figures for asset poverty, i.e., less in savings and other cash sources than a family would need to live at or above the poverty line if it had no income stream for three months.

What we know from the indicator is that the percent of asset-poor households increased by 4% between 2006 and 2009, leaving somewhat over 27% of all households at high risk of poverty.

What Will Next Year’s Indicators Show?

Congress has already decided that the unemployment benefits indicator will worsen — unless prospects for long-term job seekers dramatically improve.

It seems on the brink of deciding to let the food insecurity rate rise, since both the House and Senate Farm Bills would cut benefits for half a million households.

But the fate of most indicators — and the people whose lives underlie them — depend on what sort of bargain Republicans and Democrats strike to address the misnamed fiscal cliff.

Half in Ten offers “the right choices” for them — which, of course, are very different from the choices of the right.

* The 2010 figures are supposed to be accessible online. They weren’t when I published this, but I’m told the web tech team is working on a fix.


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