Some College Education Not Enough in DC’s Economy

February 5, 2015

As you may have noticed, this recovery that’s suppose to be more than five years old now hasn’t been one of those rising tides that lifts all boats. We’ve had scads of reports, media features and the like showing how more and more income is flowing to the already-rich, leaving the rest with a shrinking share.

A new report from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute zeroes in on one angle of this nationwide story — employment and wages in the District of Columbia. It does so mainly by comparing Census data for 2007, just before the recession set in, to comparable data for 2013.

The report’s subtitle tells that “DC’s Economic Recovery Is Not Reaching All Residents.” That’s an understatement. For example:

  • Low-wage workers, i.e., those with earnings in the bottom fifth, actually got paid a bit less per hour in 2013 than in 2007.
  • The unemployment rate for black workers was 6% higher late last summer than in 2007, though the overall unemployment rate in the District was just 2.1% higher.
  • About two and a half times as many black workers were jobless for at least six months in 2013 as in 2007.
  • Higher percents of black and Hispanic workers, especially the former, were working part time, though they wanted full-time jobs.

The big message underlying many of the figures and related graphs is that residents without at least a four-year college degree are no better off than they were before the recession. In some respects, they’re worse off.

We’re used to seeing dismal wage figures and relatively high unemployment rates for workers without a high school diploma or the equivalent. And we’ve surely got them in DCFPI’s report.

But the figures for District residents with some college education, including those with an associate’s degree are an eye-opener. We learn, for example, that:

  • The median hourly wage for the some-college group fell more, in dollars, than the median for workers with no more than a high school diploma.
  • At the same time, the median for residents with at least a four-year college degree increased by $2.00 an hour — roughly the same as what the some-college workers lost.
  • The unemployment rate for the some-college group was close to 15% in 2013. This is nearly three times the rate in 2007 — and only about 4% higher than the rate for residents without a high school diploma.
  • About 22% of the some-college workers were involuntary part-timers, i.e., wanted full-time work, but couldn’t get it.

Yet when DCFPI turns to what needs to be done, it focuses largely on the District’s lowest-wage workers — and those who either can’t get jobs or could, but can’t afford the collateral costs.

Our some-college workers may benefit from most of the recommendations, but only to the extent they’re as disadvantaged in our labor market as workers and potential workers without their formal education credentials.

For example, DCFPI puts in another plug for career pathways that integrate basic literacy and job training programs — not, one hopes, an approach our some-college residents need.

It also recommends that the District take better advantage of federal funds available for job training and related supports, e.g., transportation subsidies, through SNAP  (the food stamp program). This, I take it, means invest more local dollars because the U.S. Department of Agriculture will reimburse half of what’s spent on an approved plan.

Two other recommendations would help ease conflicts between work and family obligations. One would enable a worker to take paid leave in order to care for a new baby or ill family member. Obviously preferable to quitting, getting fired or, in the best of cases, losing wages you and other family members need.

Another recommendation — oft made and still not fully funded — would increase the reimbursement rates the District pays providers that care for children with publicly-funded subsidies.

We know that some providers won’t accept such children and that others limit the number they’ll accept because, in at least some cases, the reimbursements don’t even cover the costs of care.

Some parents who don’t work could. Others could work more. Wouldn’t do a thing for their wage rates or job prospects. But there’d be more income to spend on other needs.

Still another oft-made recommendation could boost earnings for thousands of workers in the District’s growing “hospitality” sector, as well as some others, e.g., hairdressers, the folks who deliver our pizzas. These are workers whom employers can pay as little as $2.77 an hour because they regularly receive tips.

DCFPI suggests a 70% increase in the tip credit wage — borrowing, it seems, from the long-stalled minimum wage bill in Congress. But it also notes that seven states have no tip credit wage at all — a model the District could follow, if policymakers would stand up to the restaurant and hotel industry lobbyists.

Don’t look to me — or, I would guess, other progressives — to argue against any of these recommendations. But, so far as I can see, none of them gets to the heart of the problem DCFPI illuminates.

If you live in the District, you’ll have a tough time getting — and keeping — a job that will pay enough to support a reasonably secure, comfortable lifestyle unless you’ve got at least a four-year college degree.

What our local policymakers can do about this I’m hard put to say. And I’m certainly not faulting DCFPI for teeing up a handful of quite modest recommendations they could adopt right now — or as part of the budget the mayor’s people are already working on.

But I don’t think we should just shrug our shoulders either. An economy that works for only about half the adults in the city isn’t, to borrow from DCFPI, “enabling all residents to succeed.”




Less Poverty, Greater Income Inequality in DC

January 5, 2015

The new year seems a fitting time to check on how the District of Columbia is progressing toward two related goals — reducing poverty and achieving shared prosperity. A true good-news, bad-news story, according to indicators the Half in Ten campaign published last month.

As I’ve written before, Half in Ten created the indicators in 2011, when it restarted the clock on cutting poverty in half in ten years.

They’re organized under four main headings — poverty reduction (of course), good jobs, strong families and communities and economic security.

But they yield a fragmentary picture — in part, because Half in Ten has to use numbers already available for both the U.S. as a whole and states, plus the District. And for other reasons beyond its control, they’re not all current.

I’ve tried in the past to follow Half in Ten’s framework. A different approach this year, based on what I found most striking, especially when I looked back to the original indicator set.

Long story short: The District has a lower poverty rate than in 2010. But shared prosperity still seems a will o’ the wisp.

Poverty Reduction

The District’s poverty rate last year was 0.3% lower than in 2010 — 18.9%, as compared to 19.2%. The new rate is still higher than rates for all but five Deep South and Southwestern states.

The race/ethnicity breakout is one way we see income inequality in the District. For example, as I reported when the figures were released, the 2012 poverty rate for black residents is more than three times the rate for non-Hispanic whites.

Income Inequality

Half in Ten’s indicator is the ratio between the shares of income that went to households in the top and bottom fifths of the income scale last year, according to the American Community Survey. By this measure, income inequality in the District is extraordinarily high — 30.3. It’s far larger than any state’s — and more importantly, larger than in 2010.

But the ratio is, to me, a tad abstract. So let me translate it into actual shares. Of all the household income in the District, the top fifth enjoyed nearly 55.4%. The bottom fifth had to make do with slightly more than 1.8%.

Some Contributing Factors

On the one hand, 70.2% of young adults in the District have at least a two-year college degree — a slight uptick since 2010. As you’d expect, this is far higher than the percent in any state.

On the other hand, only 59% of teens who started high school graduated four years later, as of the 2011-12 school year. This is a slightly lower percent than the rate for the prior school year — and the lowest reported for 2011-12.

Not surprisingly, the District has a relatively high percent of “disconnected” youth, i.e., 16-24 year olds who were neither working nor in school in 2012. This latest “disconnected” rate — 17% — is exactly the same as in 2010, which again puts the District roughly mid-way in the state rankings.

No such flat-lining for the unemployment rate, which declined from 9.9% in 2010 to 8.3% last year. Pretty obvious who’s getting the jobs — and not — in our burgeoning local economy.

On the upside, the teen birthrate declined quite a lot. In 2012, there were 38.6 births for every 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 19. This is 6.8 fewer than in 2010. And though still high, it’s nowhere near rates in the bottom-ranked states.

Teen birthrates are often correlated to poverty — as cause, effect or some combination of both. Recent research suggests that income inequality is an additional factor because poor young women see little chance of improving their economic situation if they postpone motherhood.

The percent of children in foster care also has bearing on the poverty rate — again, as cause, effect or both. It’s still high in the District — 11 children per 1,000, as of 2012. But it was 20 per 1,000 in 2010.

Further Progress Possible

Some state and local governments are adopting policies that can reduce poverty and enable low-income people to gain a greater share of prosperity, as the report that includes and provides context for the indicators selectively shows.

Here in the District, for example, the minimum wage will step up to $11.50 in July 2016 — $4.25 more than the federal minimum. Ten states also raised their minimum wage last year, making 29 that now have minimums above the federal.

Proposals to raise the federal minimum have gone nowhere in Congress — and most surely won’t during the next two years. The same seems likely for other legislation that would boost low incomes and strengthen both work supports and safety net programs for people who can’t earn enough to meet basic needs.

So, as the report concludes, “the momentum for national change” of a progressive sort has to build at state and local levels. A call to action for advocates and grassroots organizers.

And, I suppose, a hopeful note to end on, since it implies that we’ll have a renewed federal commitment to reducing poverty and income inequality sooner or later. But in the meantime, we’ll have inequities at least as large as those we have now based on where people live.

Thanksgiving Break: Less Policy, More Personal

November 25, 2014

I feel I should write something relevant to the upcoming Thanksgiving Day. Yet the muse is silent — perhaps because she tends to strike when I’m pissed off about something, which is fairly often, as those of you who follow this blog know. Nevertheless ….

As I said four years ago, I have a great deal to be personally thankful for. Some, though not all of it stems from a choice I made many, many years ago. I chose to be born to parents who were comfortably middle-class — and to a mother whose father had actually done the Horatio Alger thing.

So we had economic security, which, as I noted yesterday, seems not all that common any more, especially for families with children. And I have economic security now in part because of what I’ve inherited.

My parents invested a lot in our education — some monetary, some not. My sibs and I were sent to a wonderful preschool. We were taken to museums, concerts, children’s theater performances and the like. We were read to every evening until we learned to read on our own.

And boy, were there a lot of spoken words in our house — at least as many, I guess, as the 2,150 or so an hour that supposedly help account for why children of professional parents do better in school than others. (My parents weren’t professionals, but they did talk a steady stream.)

We attended public schools, which were just okay. But my mother had the time, education and concern to help when teachers apparently couldn’t. I still recall how she enabled me to get the hang of algebra word problems, e.g., trains departing from opposite stations.

And I recall how my father showed me what was special about Gauguin’s paintings, using books of reproductions he’d managed to take with him when he left Germany just in the nick of time.

So I was admitted to the college I wanted to go to. I’m thankful for the donors who made my scholarship possible — and for the family friend who paid for my plane fares. And I’m thankful for what was then California state policy because my graduate education at a fine university cost me $75 a semester.

For all these reasons — and some sheer dumb luck — I’ve never lived in poverty. Never even had to go without anything I truly needed. I’m thankful for that. But it weighs on my mind because I understand that I’ve lived — and am living — a privileged life.

So I blog in the comfort of a home we own about people who don’t even have a room to themselves — or heat on this chilly day. People who are worrying about whether they’ll have enough to eat, rather than how they can fit any more food into a refrigerator that’s occupied by a turkey which seems much larger than when we bought it.

As a former President said, when confronted with an egregious income-based inequity, “[T]here are many things in life that are not fair.” We’ve got much more research supporting such inequities than we did then, including the lifelong unequal chances of children born to well-off and poor parents.

And it seems truer in some ways as well. We need only look at how much more income is flowing to the top 1% or at how little workers have gained from increasing productivity — so little that all but the highest-paid employees are making less, in real dollars, than they did at the outset of the Great Recession.

We know we could make life in this country fairer. More to the point, we know we could make life better for people who can, at best, barely get by day to day — and for their children, who could get something more like the start in life I had. But my heart sinks when I consider the near-term policy prospects, especially on Capitol Hill.

So I’m thankful for advocacy organizations that don’t despair, as I’m sometimes inclined to. I’m thankful for the research and analyses, the direct representation and the opportunities to collaborate and weigh in that they provide. And for their spirit, which lifts mine.

I’m thankful for the faith-based and other charitable organizations that tend to the basic needs of the underprivileged people in their communities — and for the other things they do to help them meet those needs.

As I think about our extensive nonprofit networks, I’m also thankful for the very privileged whose support helps make their good work possible — and for the many others who contribute what they can.

A last word of thanks to you who’ve indulged me in this excursion into the autobiographical mode. Back to the usual, as soon as we’ve settled into the post-holiday/pre-holiday routine. I expect I’ll find a lot to be pissed off about.

How Does DC Stack Up Against States?

September 18, 2014

A few additional factoids from the new Census Bureau figures — all reinforcing the acute income divide I’ve already remarked on.

On the one hand, the median income for households in the District was higher than the medians in all but four states. Neighboring Maryland had the highest — $72,483. The District’s was $4,911 lower.

On the other hand, only five states had higher poverty rates than the District. And the District tied with Alabama for the sixth highest child poverty rate. Pretty remarkable when you consider that Alabama had the fourth lowest median income.

DC Poverty Rate Rises to Nearly 19%

September 18, 2014

I was all set to write that the poverty rate for the District of Columbia dipped down last year, just as the official national rate had. But no, according to the just-released results of the American Community Survey.

The District’s poverty rate increased from 18.2% in 2012 to 18.9% in 2013,  Or so it seems. The increase is small enough increase to fall within the margin of error.*

Here’s more of what we’ve got, plus a few remarks here and there.

The Big Picture

The new poverty rate means that approximately 115,630 District residents lived on less than the very low applicable poverty threshold — just $23,624 for a two-parent, two-child family or about 26% of the family’s basic living costs in the D.C. area.

The rate is 2.5% higher than in 2007, just before the recession set in. It is also 3.1% higher than the 2013 national rate.

The deep poverty rate, i.e., the percent of residents living below half the applicable income threshold, was 10.3%. In other words, somewhat over 63,000 residents were devastatingly poor, especially when we consider the high costs of living in the District.

Young and Old

As in the past, the child poverty rate was much higher than the overall rate — 27.2%. This means that about 29,740 D.C. children were officially poor — well over half of them (16.2%) deeply so.

Both the total and the deep poverty rates for children were slightly higher than in 2012 — in both cases, by less than 1%. But they were considerably higher than in 2007, when the child poverty rate was 22.7% and the deep poverty rate for children 12%.

They were also both higher than the national rates. These, according to the ACS, were 22.2% and 9.9%.

Seniors had lower poverty and deep poverty rates — 17.5% and 4.5% respectively. These too, however, were higher than the nationwide rates. And a better poverty measure than the clunker the ACS uses would probably yield higher rates for seniors here in the District.

Non-Hispanic Whites v. Everybody Else

Race/ethnicity gaps in the District remain very wide. For example:

  • The black poverty rate was more than three and a half times greater than the rate for non-Hispanic whites — 28.7%, as compared to 7.7%.
  • For blacks, the deep poverty rate was 15.2%, while for non-Hispanic whites only 5.1%.
  • For Hispanics, the poverty rate was 12.6% and the deep poverty rate 5.6%. These are markedly lower than the 2012 rates, unlike the others here.
  • Rates for Asians were 18.7% and 13.2% respectively.

We see similar disparities in median household income, i.e., the midpoint between the highest and the lowest.

  • The median income for non-Hispanic white households was a very comfortable $118,402.
  • For black households, the median income was less than a third of that — $38,124.
  • Hispanic and Asian households fell in between, with a median incomes of $50,861 and $63,281 respectively.

The non-Hispanic white household median was a whole lot higher here than nationwide, by nearly $60,720.  The medians for black and Hispanic households were higher too, but the dollar differences were much smaller, especially the former. The median for Asian households was lower — a surprise, since it was considerably higher in 2012.

Work and Education

We’re told that work is the solution to poverty. The ACS figures support this, but only up to a point.

In 2013, 46.5% of poor residents between the ages of 16 and 64 didn’t work at all. An additional 25.7% worked less than full time or intermittently.

But that still leaves nearly 8,380 working-age residents who were employed full-time, year round and still not earning enough to lift themselves out of poverty — or at least, not them and dependent family members.

It’s a fair guess that these are mostly residents who don’t have the formal education credentials that living-wage jobs here, as elsewhere, increasingly demand. This is probably also the case for many of the part-time and some-time employed.

What we do know is that roughly 44.5% of residents 25-64 years old who had less than a high school education were employed during 2013 — and only 54.2% with no more than that.

Not surprisingly then, the poverty rate for those 25 years and older who had just a high school diploma or the equivalent was 27% last year — and for those with less, 39.3%. By contrast, the poverty rate for those with at least a four-year college degree was just 5.4%.

(Yes, I know these shifting age brackets are frustrating.)

Income Inequality

There’s obviously a lot of wealth in the District — and a lot of poverty. We see this in the figures I’ve cited, but also in the fact that the average household income — $102,822 — is so much greater than the median.

While 15.3% of households had incomes under $15,000, 12% had incomes of at least $200,000 — the highest bracket the Census Bureau reports.

There’s nothing new about this divide, except for the specific numbers. Nor is it unique to the District, though the disparity here seems unusually high. Nothing new about that either.

Most experts — and advocates as well — view the growing income inequality in this country as a bad thing in and of itself. They also see negatives specifically for people at the low end of the income scale. Many of the same arguments would apply to the District.

Nearly 10,860 families in the District had annual incomes, including cash benefits of less than $10,000 last year. Surely we can do better, though doing it won’t be simple.

* All the ACS tables include the margins of error, i.e., how much the raw numbers and percents could be too high or too low. In the interests of simplicity, I’m reporting both as given.

NOTE: I’ve revised several figures in this post because I’ve learned that I should use the ACS national figures for comparisons. I had originally used the Current Population Survey for these because that’s how I understood the Census Bureau advice.

Welfare Shifts to the “Deserving” Poor … and Not-So-Poor

May 27, 2014

The U.S. is spending considerably more on safety net programs than it did in the mid-1970s, but the poorest families — most of them headed by single mothers — are receiving less.

This is a key finding in the latest of several studies conducted by Professor Robert Moffitt at Johns Hopkins University. He looked at spending the 15 largest “social safety net” programs between 1975 and 2007.

He traced payments from social insurance programs like Social Security for retirees and unemployment compensation and from means-tested programs, i.e. those that limit eligibility to people below a set income level.

Overall safety net spending in real dollars was 74% higher at the end of the period, but families in deep poverty, i.e., below half the federal poverty line, received 35% less than they did the year before Congress replaced welfare as we knew it with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Well, we knew that TANF is a poor excuse for a safety net program — and in various ways, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ chart book shows.

Moffitt’s findings, however, do far more than confirm this. Basically, as he says, they show that long-standing distinctions between the deserving and undeserving poor “have grown sharper over the last 20 or 30 years.”

“The deserving are those who work, who are married or at least widowed, who have children and who are native born.”

The undeserving are the obverse, Moffitt contends, though I personally think the bans on safety net benefits for recent immigrants have other roots.

Quibble aside, what his data show isn’t merely declining support for the “undeserving” poor. We also see increasing support for famiies who aren’t poor — or even near-poor.

The shift reportedly means that a family of four earning $11,925 a year is probably getting less aid than the same-sized family earning $47,700 — 200% of the federal poverty line.

This is partly because the real-dollar value of TANF cash benefits has dropped so significantly, along with the percent of poor families served — about 43% fewer than in 1996.

At the same time, most of the fastest growing programs serve “specialized populations,” Moffitt says. These include Supplemental Security Income, which helps only lower-income people who are elderly, blind or severely disabled, i.e., those who qualify as deserving because we don’t expect them to work.

Otherwise, most of the fastest growing programs benefit families with at least one worker — the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit. Childless workers obviously don’t qualify for the latter at all. And their EITC benefit is piddling.

By contrast, a married couple with two children qualifies for a maximum $5,460 credit — and for phased-down credits until their adjusted gross income reaches $49,146.

The one exception, Moffitt notes, is SNAP (the food stamp program), which isn’t restricted to any “specialized population.” But it provides only about $5 per person per day, he says — a generous rounding up, according to CBPP data.

By and large, we see “rising support for those who work and declining support for those who do not, Moffitt says. “If you’re trying and not succeeding, the welfare system today gives you basically nothing.”

We’ve cut support to families without a breadwinner — and to single-mother families in particular — because of a “presumption that they have not taken personal responsibility for their situation,” he explains.

By these lights, earning is a mark of deserving — as is marrying (someone of the opposite sex) and staying married, no matter what.

Poverty betokens some character flaw — at the very least, a failure to try hard enough, as a majority of Republicans (and not they only) apparently believe.

Moffitt understandably believes it would be futile — perhaps counterproductive — to attack the work bias in our safety net programs. He mentions doing more for those who face the largest obstacles to work, e.g., lack of marketable skills and/or affordable child care.

But he also hopes “we could find ways to assist those families who are making an effort, but not succeeding.” Effort then becomes a market of deserving.

And who will decide who’s really trying?




Poverty and Income Inequality Don’t Just Happen

November 12, 2013

Now, here’s an interesting fact to chew over. If the wealth in this country were evenly distributed among adults, each of us would have $301,000.

By this measure, we’re not the wealthiest country in the world. That distinction goes to tiny Switzerland, according to the latest Global Wealth report from Credit Suisse.

But we’ve got, by far and away, the highest percent of millionaires (42%) — and an even larger share (46.5%) of all the people with more than $50 million in the 19 countries the Credit Suisse analysts could compile data far.

At the same time, we’ve got 15% of the population — 46.5 million people — so poor as to fall below the Census Bureau’s very low poverty thresholds.

Blogger Matt Bruenig crunched some numbers and found that it would take $175.3 billion to lift every one of them out of poverty, as officially defined.

That may seem like a great deal of money. But it’s only a bit over 1% of the value of the goods and services our country produced last year — and according to my number-crunching, only about $3,770 per person.

Now, I don’t want to lend credibility to the troll who alleges that I’m a “commie terrorist,” but these numbers do get the mind churning.

On the one hand, the Credit Suisse figures underscore how unevenly wealth is distributed. On the other hand, Bruenig’s indicate how relatively little we’d have to redistribute to end poverty — well, not really, but at least according to the measure we use.

As Bruenig says, we have mechanisms to do this. We could, for example, expand the refundable Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit. We could expand SNAP (the food stamp program), instead of arguing over how much to cut it.

We could, Bruenig adds, establish a “mild basic income and a negative income tax.” These aren’t radically leftist notions.

Economist Milton Friedman, whom no one would call a leftist, proposed a negative income tax back in 1962. As he described it, people would file tax returns and get a refund of sorts for some portion of however much their income fell below the threshold at which they would owe anything.

This ultimately became the basis for the EITC, but the tax credit helps only people who work and their dependents. And it does very little for parents who earn very little and for those who are childless, even if their earnings are fairly decent.

Though Friedman viewed the NIT as an alternative to existing welfare programs, it wouldn’t have to be. On the other hand, it could replace them if the refunds were big enough to pay for basic needs.

I know economists have concerns about disincentives to work — as, of course, do policymakers. Comfortable hammock and all that.

And perhaps there’s something to this, though I note that we don’t seem to have these concerns when the issue is what are effectively income supports for people who are already well-off, e.g., the various tax benefits to homeowners.

These alone would pay for more than half the cost of lifting everybody out of poverty, according to Joint Taxation Committee estimates that Bruenig cites.

The basic point here, which Bruenig makes well, is that poverty is a function of policies that distribute income unevenly, not a spontaneous phenomenon. Wealth likewise, I’d add.

Policies built into the federal tax code are an obvious example — not only so-called tax expenditures in the individual income tax system, but the tax treatment of assets that are passed on to heirs.

State and local tax policies also enter into the picture, since, on average, they collect the highest percent of income from residents in the bottom fifth of the income scale and the lowest percent of all for the top 1%.

Less obvious, but surely important are school financing policies, which tend to provide significantly more resources for the schools wealthy kids can attend and shortchange the schools for the poorest, who arguably need more.

Insofar as a good education increases future earnings, the uneven distribution of tax dollars contributes to uneven income distribution in successive generations.

Diverse labor policies also affect earnings, of course. These have generally tended to depress wage growth for the vast majority of workers.  And the savings they enable businesses to achieve go to owners, who may be shareholders — and in many large corporations, to CEOs.

Housing, transportation and urban development policies have also played a part by concentrating poor people in pockets of poverty, with limited access to jobs and, as aforementioned, good schools.

I’m sure some of you can think of others.

In short (after what perhaps should have been shorter), poverty and income inequality don’t just happen. We’ve created them — or at the very least, made decisions that foster them.

By the same token, we could make decisions to reduce them. We’ve got the wealth and a wealth of ideas. Not, however, the political will that can come only from a broad consensus that creating the conditions for shared prosperity is a must-do.


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