New Answers to Who Is Poor in America

Recent mail included not only the usual junk, requests for donations and bills, but a magazine from Stanford University’s Center on Poverty and Inequality. Such a surprise, since I hadn’t ordered it. And such an informative and thought-provoking issue.

It’s a series of what it terms “blueprints” for ending poverty, prefaced by two framing papers. One presents key facts that reforms should reflect, the other a litmus tests for them.

They seem to me more groundbreaking than the blueprints, fine as those are. So I’ll focus on the first—and more meaty — here. Will follow up with the second soon.

More Jobless, Childless Adults

The authors present two facts that indicate a changing structure in U.S. poverty.

They’re often ignored because they’re at the margins of our safety net programs and so would be harder to accommodate than, say, much-needed reforms in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. (Unintentionally confirming this, none of the blueprints addressed them.)

The first is the ongoing increase in jobless poverty — more specifically, the unemployment rate for working-age adults. Many are probably “disconnected,” i.e., not looking for work and so not counted in the reported rate.

It rises during recessions, of course. But in good times, as well as bad, working-age adults who don’t have children living with them — often referred to as childless — have dropped out of the labor market.

More in Dire Poverty

So the poverty population as a whole is becoming “a more deprived and destitute class”—not just poor, but deeply so, i.e., living on incomes less than half the poverty threshold or even the extreme $2.00 a day poverty. This is the second key fact.

But our safety net programs don’t reflect it, for several reasons. One is that they’re work-based. TANF, for example, aims to increase the training that will gain participants jobs. The Earned Income Tax Credit is only for people who’ve earned money by working.

The programs are also family-based. TANF, of course, is only for parents who’ve got children living with them. The EITC favors married couples with children and sets a very low maximum benefit for the childless.

Opportunities Out of Reach

The third key fact differs from the others because it’s not directly a change in the structure of our poverty population. The authors refer to it as the “commodification of opportunity”—a fancy term for several developments that help account for poverty.

They include low and unpredictable wages for both workers in regular jobs who’ve got, at most, a high school education and the growing number in the gig economy, e.g., Uber drivers, temp agency employees.

Two other developments have to do with the composition of the poverty population. One is the growing share who are Hispanic. Another, closely related is the share who are immigrants.

They’re at high risk not only because many are undocumented and so justifiably fear complaining of wage theft. Most who are legally here don’t become eligible for major safety net benefits for their first five years.

And however long they’ve been here, a goodly number have limited job opportunities because they speak little or no English.

Still another and again related development is increasing neighborhood segregation. The authors focus here on research on children who grow up in poor neighborhoods, i.e., the potential next generation in the working-age adult poverty population.

But, in fact, living in a poor neighborhood disadvantages the current generation too —  because of few nearby decent-paying jobs, for example, public transportation to get to them, fewer working neighbors to serve as networks and such high levels of stress as to interfere with job training and searches.

Now comes genuine commodification, i.e., the need to buy what’s needed for a decent-paying job. When TANF began, a diploma from a public high school sufficed for a job that paid more than a poverty-level wage.

As we all know, you now need postsecondary education and/or training for in-demand skills. Both are often costly. So it’s sort of them that has gets and those that don’t doesn’t.

Add to these the difficulties low-income parents have in giving their children opportunities that will pay off in the long run. These include high-quality early education delivered in daycare centers.

And following that, ready access to good public schools, since that generally requires living in a well-off neighborhood, where rents are high or nonexistent because it’s a homeowner community.

The authors intersperse these facts with brief remarks on what policies could do and what some already are. But what’s clear enough is that our anti-poverty plans need some significant adjustments.

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