New Reports Provide Different Perspectives on Poverty

January 13, 2014

One thing you can say about last week’s War on Poverty anniversary. It sure produced a lot of grist for my mill. I’m having trouble wrapping my mind around it all.

So for now I’ll focus on two very different perspectives provided by new reports. Both speak in different ways to unfinished business. And both indicate needs to modify our strategies because conditions have changed and experience has illuminated our difficulties, as President Johnson foresaw when he proposed the War.

One, from the Census Bureau, tells us that poverty is a common experience and a usually temporary, though sometimes recurrent one. These findings are generally similar to research I wrote about earlier, but based on more current data.

The other report, from the Urban Institute, tells us that some portion of the population is not only persistently poor, but likely to cycle in and out of deep poverty — or to remain there.

Episodic Poverty

The Census Bureau carved out two three-year periods from its Survey of Income and Program Participation, which collects data from the same sample of individuals every four months for at least two and a half years.

Not surprisingly, poverty figures were higher for the second period — January 2009-December 2011. But the basic picture is the same as for the first, which ended shortly after the recession set in.

During the more recent period, 31.6% of the population lived below the applicable poverty threshold for at least two months — more than double the official annual rate. But only 3.5% was in poverty for the entire three years.

By 2011, 5.4% of people who hadn’t been officially poor in 2009 were. At the same time, 36.5% of those who’d been poor in 2009 no longer were.

The median length of time for any single spell of poverty was slightly over six and a half months. Only 15.2% of spells lasted more than two years.

We see a high degree of economic insecurity — and not only in the very large percent of Americans who suffered at least one spell of poverty within a relatively short period of time.

Nearly half of those who recovered sufficiently to rise above the applicable poverty threshold — 6.2 million people — still had family incomes below 150% of it. For a three-person family, this was less, on average, than about $26,875 in 2011.

An additional 11.9 million who didn’t fall into poverty dropped from 150% of the threshold to somewhere closer to it. So even within this relatively short period, some 18.1 million people were on the verge of poverty.

Deep and Persistent Poverty

“Deep poverty” here means having a household income below half the applicable poverty threshold — less than $9,249 a year for a single parent with two children in 2012. Well over 20.3 million people in the U.S. were that poor last year — about 6.6% of the population.

Urban Institute researchers have found that some portion of them are stuck in poverty — and worse. Many are “hovering around the deep poverty threshold, without ever earning enough to escape poverty altogether.”

Theirs is a “chronic state,” an Institute account of the research says. And it can persist from generation to generation. How many are bemired there the report doesn’t say — and perhaps couldn’t.

The main thrust is that deep, persistent poverty is rooted in a complex of serious personal challenges, e.g., drug and/or alcohol addiction, severe mental or physical disabilities, chronic illness.

Because of or in addition to these, persistently poor people have other “co-occurring challenges,” e.g., homelessness, functional illiteracy, a criminal record.

Our safety net programs aren’t designed for them, the researchers say. Many, in fact, are conditioned on work — the Earned Income Tax Credit, for example, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. SNAP (the food stamp program) has work requirements also, though only for able-bodied adults without dependents.

The report itself is addressed to foundations, which could contribute to solutions in various ways. But it points to the need for policy changes that run counter to the vision underlying virtually all plans for what to do about poverty in America.

Because it involves accepting the fact that “deeply poor adults may never be self-sufficient” or even able to work steadily. In some cases, perhaps not at all — and for reasons that don’t qualify them for disability benefits.

Policymakers may, however, take to the other piece of the Institute’s agenda — early and intensive interventions to break the cycle.

About 3% of children — and an alarming 15% of those who are black — spend more than half their childhoods in deep poverty. We have lots of research documenting the long-term damages of childhood poverty. They’re presumably more common and/or severe in cases of deep childhood poverty.

We also have studies indicating that some programs can do a lot to mitigate them — not only programs that address basic needs like good nutrition and health care, but early childhood education and home visiting programs.

The Urban Institute also mentions several small-scale holistic initiatives that may provide models for “blunting the effects” of chronic poverty. “We can sure make things better for the kids,” one of the researchers says.

But meanwhile, we’ve got a system based on expectations that may be wholly unrealistic for the parents instead of a commitment to provide whatever services and supports they need — and for however long they need them.


Extending Unemployment Benefits Won’t Help All Jobless Workers

August 24, 2012

Looking back on my post about the expiring federal unemployment insurance benefits, I realized I’d left out important parts of the picture.

One is the growing number of workers who’ve been jobless more than 99 weeks — longer than the maximum for benefits even when both federal programs were in full force.

The other is that lots of workers who lose their jobs through no fault of their own can’t get UI benefits at all.

In 2010, for example, only 44% of these workers got any benefits from their state programs, according to a recent brief from the Urban Institute.

The brief documents what we probably would have guessed. A very high percentage of the left-out workers are “disadvantaged,” e.g., blacks and Hispanics, single mothers, teens and young adults.

Both blacks and Hispanics are also unusually likely to be among the long-term unemployed, another Institute brief tells us.

We know from other sources that single mothers were far more likely to be jobless and actively looking for work last year than married mothers — or the labor force as a whole. This was also true for the 16-24 year old age group.

The disadvantaged workers are less likely than others to get UI benefits because states have eligibility rules that tend to exclude them.

These, in some cases, are related to the workers’ disadvantages in the labor market.

Virtually all states, for example, have minimum earnings requirements. The time period they use varies, but the earnings threshold will always disadvantage low-wage workers whose jobs weren’t ongoing and full-time.

Workers who got jobs through temporary agencies are often out of luck — even if they put in a full day, every day.

Only 22 states will provide benefits for workers who have to quit for reasons most of us would find compelling, i.e., domestic violence, the need to care for a sick or disabled family member.*

Not surprisingly, single mothers seem to fall into this group, though the Institute’s report isn’t altogether clear on this.

Many are also left out in the 23 states that won’t provide benefits for workers who are looking for a new job that isn’t full time. We know anecdotally that single mothers may have no alternative because they can’t afford the high costs of child care.

The Recovery Act gave states a financial incentive to eliminate such barriers in their UI programs.

Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia adopted the first and only partial payment option — or already had it on the books.

But only 34 states and the District took the minimum three actions that netted them the full amount they could receive.

Just one and the District went for the fully battery. Still barriers for disadvantaged workers in both jurisdictions, however.

Some states have since tightened up their requirements — this rather than raise the imprudently low UI taxes they’d decided to collect from employers.

The end result is a patchwork of coverage.

But there are only five states in which more than half of all jobless workers got UI benefits in 2010. And only one — Alaska — where the rate topped 60%.

* Eleven other states will provide benefits for workers who quit because of domestic violence, but not because of a family member’s illness or disability.


Further Thoughts On Our Safety Net and the Deserving Poor

January 20, 2010

Awhile ago, New York Times reporter Jason DeParle wrote a first-rate piece on the patchwork of programs that passes for our safety net. Health care, housing, food stamps, cash assistance–each its own “separate bureaucratic world” with rules that often collide with others.

A recent symposium hosted by the Urban Institute took a deeper dive into the the sorry shape of our safety net and what we ought to do about it. For me, the biggest take-away was the explanation of the gaps and inconsistencies DeParle’s article illustrates.

The “jumble” we’ve got results in part from differing views of government over time–belief in a strong federal role during the Depression and again in the 1960′s, deference to states and the private sector taking hold in the 1990′s.

It’s also the product of conflicting values–fairness, individual freedom, family and community and, very importantly, self-reliance and the value of work. Taken as a whole, its goals are to protect the vulnerable and to provide both basic financial security and equal opportunity. But some programs focus on one and some on another. They can work at cross-purposes–even internally.

Still there’s a common thread. Benefits should go mainly–or exclusively–to those who deserve them. And the way you deserve them is by working or having worked.

Children are a partial exception here because benefits for them are designed to help them grow up to be workers. There are also some limited exceptions for people who we’ve decided can’t work through no fault of their own–for example, individuals with severe disabilities. Not included are people who face barriers like lack of skills, race discrimination and/or a criminal record. And, of course, recent immigrants are beyond the pale.

No panelist seemed inclined to question this notion of the deserving poor. As I’ve written before, Ron Haskins is a true believer. Not so Demetra Nightingale (source of the above). But she apparently believes that reforms to our safety net have to respect our existing framework of values, i.e., give primacy to the work ethic.

From a practical political perspective, she’s probably right. But I wish it were otherwise.

I’m not questioning the value of work. For me personally, it’s been a continuing source of personal fulfillment, connectedness and autonomy. So I’m all for programs that help people who want to work–and I believe most do–find employment that offers them reasonable security and satisfaction.

But I wonder about assigning value only to paying work. Why insist that self-sufficiency trumps contributing to the common good–that getting a paycheck makes one more deserving than raising a child or campaigning for a cause or cleaning up the neighborhood?

More basically, I’m troubled by the paradigm. By and large, we seem to view our safety net as an act of collective charity extended to individuals we deem worthy of our care. So we debate who is deserving and how much we can afford to dispense to them once we’ve taken care of other priorities.

What if we instead viewed the safety net as an essential component of our shared interest in a healthy, prosperous, humane community?

I realize this is a pie-in-the-sky notion for a country that’s built on a myth of rugged individuals boot-strapping their way up the economic scale, looking out for themselves and their families, responsible for all they and their forebears have amassed.

But I think we’d all be better off if we thought more about the welfare of the whole and less about who deserves welfare.

NOTE: For a bird’s-eye view of the complexities and internal conflicts in our safety net, take a look at the charts reproduced from Repairing the U.S. Safety Net, co-authored by Nightingale and her Urban Institute colleague Martha Burt.


Prisoner Reentry Programs Need Improvement

September 8, 2009

I recently argued that our criminal justice system needs an overhaul. Our sentencing policies send far too many people to prison–and for too long. The exploding costs of maintaining such a system–totaling $44 billion in 2007–are eating away at state coffers.

Many states are reexamining their correction policies because of massive budget shortfalls. According to a recent report by the Vera Institute of Justice, at least 22 states have reduced their departments of corrections budgets.

Most of the savings will come from changes to sentencing policies and the early release of non-violent offenders. But unless reentry programs are improved, many of those released will likely be recommitted, which will undercut budget savings.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics conducted studies of prisoners released in 1983 and 1994. Both found that a whopping two-thirds of those released were back in prison within three years. There’s no evidence to suggest that this trend has changed.

The major reasons for recidivism are straightforward. Many ex-offenders face significant barriers to quality employment and unstable or nonexistent housing arrangements. They also suffer from a greater than average prevalence of severe mental disorders, chronic infectious diseases and substance abuse–and, at the same time, lack of access to health care.

Many prisoner reentry programs do not effectively address these problems. For example, the Urban Institute reports that among those in prison in 1997, approximately 40% had not completed high school or attained a GED. Nevertheless, less than half received educational or vocational training.

Not surprisingly, it’s extraordinarily difficult for these individuals to obtain employment upon release. Last month, the unemployment rate for Americans who were 25 and older and lacked a high school diploma was 15.6%. On top of that, survey data indicate that many employers are averse to hiring people with criminal histories, even if they are qualified for the available job.

These barriers to employment reduce public safety because ex-offenders who acquire and maintain employment are less likely to engage in drug dealing, violent crime and property crime.

Clearly, we need to do a better job of preparing prisoners to constructively reenter society. Fortunately, Dr. Bruce Western of Harvard University has an intriguing proposal for a national prisoner reentry program.

The core element would be up to a year of transitional employment for parolees. Prisoners would be prepared for such employment by achieving functional levels of literacy, job skills and job readiness prior to release. Those not enrolled in education programs would work in in-prison industries making products that could be used by state and local governments.

Transitional employment would be combined with transitional housing and substance abuse treatment. Western also proposes the adoption of less punitive parole policies and the elimination of bans on federal benefits for people with criminal records.

He estimates the total cost of his proposal to be about $8.5 billion per year. States could cover some of the costs with money that currently goes toward housing prisoners. But Western would also have federal funds distributed to states that adopted specified reentry standards.

He argues that the social benefits of adopting his proposal, e.g., increased economic productivity and reduced crime, would total about $10.8 billion per year.

I’m not ready to say Dr. Western’s proposal is the right one. But it certainly grapples with many of the difficult issues associated with recidivism.


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