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.
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.