New Census Report Proves Again That Anti-Poverty Programs Work

September 19, 2016

Only so much number crunching a lone blogger like me can do. So I’m behind the curve on the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure report, issued the same day as the report using the official measure.

As in the past, the SPM shifts poverty rates up and down. The overall poverty rate, for example, is higher — 14.3%, as compared to the official 13.5%. The child poverty rate drops from 19.7% to 16.1%, while the senior poverty rate rises from 8.8% to 14.3%.

These differences, as well as others derive from numerous differences between the measures. For example, the SPM includes the children who aren’t part of the official measure’s poverty universe.*

This is relatively minor, compared to other differences — thresholds among them. Instead of those I’ve nattered about, the SPM begins with consumer spending on four basic needs, plus a small additional for others.

It then deducts for work-related expenses, e.g., transportation, child care, and for child support payments and medical costs that individuals themselves must pay. (Those medical out-of-pockets largely explain the higher senior poverty rate.)

The annual threshold adjustments differ too — and in a way that may make yearly changes in the SPM poverty rates “confusing,” the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says. It specifically cautions against comparing the new SPM figures to last year’s.

I’ll confine myself then to what we can glean from another major difference. For the official measure, only pre-tax cash income counts in determining whether a household and the members it recognizes were poor.

The SPM deducts for taxes. It also includes income derived from the refundable tax credits and the cash-equivalent value of a some safety net benefits that the federal government funds either entirely or in combination with states.

What we can see, because of an analysis the Bureau provides, is what poverty rates would have been without one or another of the safety net benefits — both cash and cash-equivalent. It folds in Social Security retirement and disability benefits, though they’re not for low-income people only.

As always, Social Security proves the most effective anti-poverty measure we’ve got. Without the benefits it provided, about 26.6 million more people would have been part of the poverty rate, boosting it to over 22.6%.

Well over a third of all seniors would have been poor — nearly triple the rate with those benefits factored in.

The Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit again come in second. They lifted about 9.2 million workers and their dependents over the poverty threshold, including 4.8 million children. Their already-high poverty rate would have been 22.6% without the credits.

Not all low-income workers benefited, however. Current law denies the federal EITC to both young and elderly workers. And the credit is very small for age-eligible adults who don’t have children — or who do, but not in their homes for more than half the year.

In short, an anti-poverty measure that works, but could work better. One could say the same for other safety net benefits the SPM report accounts for.

SNAP (the food stamp program), for example, as I’ve often said. Yet even with its current limits, it lifted roughly 4.6 million people, including nearly 2 million children out of poverty last year.

Results for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which I’ve also often gone on about, were pathetic — a 0.2% nick in the poverty rate.

An even more pathetic impact from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which neither the administration nor Congress seems much interested in funding.

We don’t see a large boost over the poverty thresholds from federally-funded housing subsidies either — a generously rounded up 2.5 million fewer poor because of it. In this case, we do have an actively interested administration — and what seems moderate support from majorities in Congress.

But the SPM thresholds take account of what people must spend for housing. And, as everyone knows, housing costs have been rising virtually everywhere.

So federal budgets would need to do more to keep those costs from driving up poverty rates than merely ensure that as many households have vouchers as they do now — or the same chance to live in public housing.

The Census Bureau reports each of the anti-poverty programs separately. So we can’t see how many people were lifted out of poverty by, say, SNAP plus a housing subsidy.

The Center on Budget rolls all the programs together and concludes that they cut the poverty rate almost in half last year.

It also notes, as have other analysts, that households surveyed tend to under-report the benefits they’ve received — mainly just because it’s hard to recall exactly how much one gets, perhaps from multiple sources and usually over some period of time.

At a minimum then, the safety net benefits, plus Social Security lifted about 38.1 million people over their poverty threshold — more seniors than younger people, but still about 7.9 million children.

CBPP warns that cuts in the programs would plunge more people into poverty. That’s, I think, what any fair-minded person would conclude from the SPM analysis.

It shows, with hard numbers, that our major anti-poverty programs work, notwithstanding the constant drumbeat from the right about how they’ve failed. It also shows they could work better — some perhaps if just more amply funded, some surely if also reformed.

* The SPM report adjusts the official rates to include the missing children. So one finds a higher overall poverty rate and higher child poverty rate there.


Total DC Poverty Rate Ticks Down Again (Barely). Rates for Blacks Rise.

September 15, 2016

CORRECTION: The overall poverty rate change for DC falls within the margin of error. A preview table I saw indicated it didn’t. But I should have verified.

The Census Bureau has taken to blasting out all its major poverty reports in rapid-fire succession. So we now have the results of the American Community Survey — not a report in the usual sense, but a huge number of online tables.

They cover a wide range of topics. And the ACS sample is much larger than what the Bureau uses for its two other annual reports. So we can get reasonably reliable figures for states and smaller jurisdictions.

I’ve again dug into a few tables for the District of Columbia — mainly those most directly related to poverty. We could, I suppose, take heart from another year of progress. But it’s modest and mixed. Both the extent of poverty in the city — and related inequalities — remind us how much remains to be done.

Poverty and Deep Poverty Rates for DC Residents Still High

About 110,380 District residents — 17.3% — lived in poverty last year. The new rate is just 0.4%* lower than the rate reported for 2014. It’s 2.6% higher than the new ACS national rate — and rates for all but eight states.

It’s also nearly 1% higher than the local rate for 2007, just before the recession set in. The population has grown since then. So the seemingly small rate difference means that the District is now home to about 18,600 more poor people. And they’re very poor indeed, for reasons I’ll touch on below.

Roughly 58,700 District residents — 9.2% of the total — lived in deep poverty, i.e., had incomes less than half the maximum set by the poverty threshold the Census Bureau uses for a household like theirs.

The new rate is perhaps 0.1% lower than the rate for 2014 — in other words, basically the same. It too is higher than the rate for the nation as a whole.

Child Poverty Rate Still Far Higher Than Overall Rate

The child poverty rate has consistently exceeded the rate for the population as a whole, both in the District and nationwide. The local rate last year was 25.6%. Like the overall rate, it’s 0.4% lower than the 2014 rate.

But it still represents about 29,710 children — about 300 more than in 2014 because, again, the rate reflects a somewhat larger population. It too is higher than the disproportionately high national rate.

More than half the District’s poor children — 15,088 — were deeply poor. The new rate is higher than the 2014 rate — 13%, as compared to 12.4%.

Race/Ethnicity Gaps Still Large

Poverty is not an equal opportunity condition here in the District or anywhere else. As in the past, we see this writ in black and white in the ACS figures. Brown and tan also, though to a lesser extent.

Last year 26.6% of black District residents were officially poor, as compared to 6.9% of non-Hispanic whites. The deep poverty rate for the former was 13.3%, while only 4.5% for the latter.

Both rates for blacks were higher than in 2014. The plain vanilla rate for non-Hispanic whites was the same then, but their deep poverty rate somewhat higher.

For Hispanics, the poverty rate was 11.6% and the deep poverty rate 5.5%. The rates for Asians were 12.3% and 9.4%.

We see the same large disparities in the ACS figures for household incomes — a related, but broader indicator than the poverty rates.

The median household income for non-Hispanic whites was nearly three times the median for black households — $120,400, as compared to $41,520. Median incomes for Hispanic and Asian households fell in between.

The median for non-Hispanic white households was an eye-popping $63,400 more than the national median — an even larger difference than reported for 2014.

More Residents Suffering Hardships Than Poverty Rates Show

I always remark, at least in passing on the fact that the poverty thresholds the Census Bureau uses for analyses like these are very low.

They’re almost surely too low to accurately reflect the number of households without enough money for basic needs in communities nationwide. But they’re egregiously too low in high-cost communities like the District.

Consider, for example, a single mother with two children. They’re officially not poor if her income, before taxes was roughly $19,100 last year.

An affordable apartment for them would have had to cost no more than about $477.50 a month. But a modest two bedroom apartment, plus basic utilities cost roughly $980 more. It would have left the mom with about $1,580 for all her family’s other basic needs over the course of the year.

Even with SNAP (food stamp) benefits, she’d have been hard pressed to put enough food on the table in part because groceries here cost far more than the nationwide average, according to a cost-of-living database.

And the benefits assume she’ll spend 30% of her own adjusted income. So there goes a quite a bit of the money she’d have left after paying the rent. Probably more than her expected share, in fact. If not, then some hungry days for her.

She’d still have to pay for a host of other things, of course, e.g., clothes, soap, toothpaste and cleaning supplies, transportation. These aren’t necessarily costlier in the District than elsewhere. But we know daycare is.

She’d have to pay some part, even with a subsidy. The subsidy’s not a sure thing for a working woman like her, however. Without it, the average of cost even just after-school care for her kids would exceed her total income.

I don’t think I need to flog this point further. But we do need to put the new District poverty figures in perspective. [Your policy message here.]

* All the ACS tables include margins of error, i.e., how much the raw numbers and percents could be too high or too low. For readability, I’m reporting both as given. The overall poverty rate beats the statistical text, but others Small year-over-year changes may mean no real differences.


U.S. Poverty Rate Slides Down

September 13, 2016

The Census Bureau has just reported that 13.5% of people in the U.S. — about 43.1 million — were officially poor last year. One wouldn’t pop a champagne cork over numbers like these. But they’re lower than reported for 2014, when the rate was 14.8%, representing roughly 46.7 million very poor people.

Rates declined for every major population group the report breaks out, except working-age adults with disabilities, whose rate remained 28.5%. All reported groups, except Asians also had lower deep poverty rates, i.e., household incomes less than half the thresholds the Bureau uses to separate the poor from the non-poor.

On the flip side, we still see large disparities. And the somewhat improved rates don’t necessarily reflect meaningful income gains.

Children Still the Poorest, Seniors Still the Least

The child poverty rate has exceeded the overall poverty rate since at least 2006, when I started tracking. Last year it dipped to 19.7%, just 1.4% lower than in 2014. The new rate represents about 14.5 million children — more than a third of all the poor people in our country.

About 6.5 million children — 8.9% — lived in deep poverty. This too is somewhat fewer than in 2014, but still alarming, especially given what we know about the lifelong damages that even just plain poverty can wreak on young children.

As in the past, people 65 years and older had the lowest poverty and deep poverty rates among the major age groups — 8.8% and 2.8% respectively. We can chalk this up largely to Social Security retirement benefits, as the Census Bureau’s new report on its Supplemental Poverty Measure shows.

Race/Ethnicity Gaps Still Yawning

Nothing much new here, except the rates. For example, the poverty rate for blacks was still more than two and a half times the rate for non-Hispanic whites — 24.1%, as compared to 9.1%.

The deep poverty rates nearly mirror these gaps — 10.9% for blacks and 4.3% for non-Hispanic whites.

Hispanics fared better than blacks, but hardly well. Their poverty rate was 21.4% and their deep poverty rate 8.5%.

Rates for Asians were lower — 11.4% and 6.2% respectively. But several analyses suggest we’d see some larger gaps — and in other cases, virtually none or even reversed — if the Bureau differentiated among the subpopulations this group comprises.

Low Inflation a Factor in Poverty Rate Drops

We should take always take poverty rates like these with a large grain of salt because the thresholds are so very low. One dollar over the threshold and everyone living in the household (except for some children) is officially not-poor.*

The thresholds aren’t altogether fixed, however. The Bureau adjusts them annually, based on the CPI-U — what consumers in metro areas spend on a market basket of goods and services.

The CPI-U remained virtually flat in 2015. So even a miniscule increase in household income could boost all its members over the applicable threshold.

In other words, the new, lower poverty rates don’t necessarily signal substantial, widespread income gains. They do, however, mean that more workers got paid somewhat more — and more who wanted to work got jobs that paid more than a pittance.

* Children under 15 who aren’t related by birth, marriage or adoption to any of the adults in the household are not part of the “poverty universe,” so far as the official measure is concerned.


Measuring Poverty the Way We Understand It

August 22, 2016

It’s a well-known fact that the official poverty measure we use doesn’t accurately tell us how many poor people live in the U.S. It was never supposed to be more than an initial baseline for War on Poverty programs.

But here we are, more than 50 years later, and it’s still the basis for setting income eligibility levels for most safety net programs, plus some others that fund services in low-income communities.

The Census Bureau has a better measure — prudently named the Supplemental Poverty Measure so as to not imply it will supplant the official measure. It’s still unfinished in some important ways, e.g., sufficient adjustments for differences housing costs.

But even a more refined measure would still produce poverty rates based on pre-tax income, plus the income equivalent of some near-cash benefits, e.g., SNAP (food stamps), and the refundable tax credits.

We’ve had other measures proposed. Some economists, for example, recommend a consumption-based measure — basically, what a household owns, spends and, in some cases, has through government spending.

A team at Columbia University, supported by the Robin Hood Foundation is using a different definition to track poverty in New York City. The aim, the Foundation says, is to “take a deeper, more realistic look at disadvantage.”

This, we see, involves several things. First, the researchers use Census data, its poverty thresholds, adjusted for local rental housing costs, and an adapted version of the SPM to measure poverty in the city.

Second, the team surveys a sample of households in all income brackets, asking questions to identify those that experience “material hardships, i.e., deprivations due to lack of money.

In other words, the project uses a concept of poverty more like the way we actually think about it — not how much money a family has, but whether it has enough to meet basic needs. The survey implicitly defines them as food, housing, utilities and medical and dental care.

A household that sometimes comes up short is said to experience “moderate material hardship.” The hardship becomes “severe” if a household experiences it chronically or acutely — for example, is so short of money for housing that it has to move to a shelter.

The hardship concept isn’t altogether novel here in the U.S. For example, a household that has very low food security, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines it, can’t always afford to buy enough food for everyone to have enough to eat.

The Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation includes a section it classifies as “adult well-being.” The questions are actually about the household’s well-being, including food security, the conditions of the housing it lives in and whether it can afford housing-related expenses.

SIPP uses the same sample of households repeatedly — some for as long as four years. It’s similar, in this way, to the third aspect of the “deeper, more realistic look” that gives the Robin Hood Foundation project its name.

It too tracks the select material hardships over time by surveying the same households for several years running. But it’s focused on them, rather than participation in programs that compensate for lack of enough income.

The survey does, however, include some questions about receipt of public benefits as part of its effort to localize the SPM. And it asks what I infer are half a dozen questions about requests for help and responses. (I’ve looked in vain for a copy of the survey itself.)

The project aims ultimately to capture the dynamics of poverty — and certain related material hardships. Understanding them, the partners say, will better equip policymakers, nonprofits and private-sector donors to develop solutions.

We’ve had three reports thus far. Each slices and dices the survey results differently. Here’s a handful of things we learn about the poverty/hardship dynamics — none, I suspect, peculiar to New York, except at the data level.

Far more New Yorkers experienced at least one material hardship than fell below the relevant poverty line. Far more, in fact, experienced at least one severe hardship. Poverty was nevertheless a major factor, as you’d guess.

Very few New Yorkers lived in poverty both when first surveyed and a year later. Slightly more fell into or rose out of it, presumably by losing or gaining income, certain cash-equivalent benefits or both.

Material hardship seems more persistent. Of the eye-popping 48% identified as experiencing at least one, nearly half still experienced it — or maybe some other — a year later, if not longer. (The first survey, as reported, didn’t ask how long respondents had already experienced the hardships covered.)

Not all New Yorkers who suffered a material hardship sought help. But majorities did — more for some needs than others. Very few said they got all the help they needed — at least, within the short timeframe the survey then covered.

Help they may have received somewhat later didn’t do all that much good. Slightly less than a third no longer experienced the hardship — a troubling finding for the project’s target audience.

Help did even less to lift households out of poverty, though the survey asks about help that could have — finding a job, for example, or getting public benefits. Only 2% more households that said they got no help remained poor than those that said they got all the help they needed.

On the other hand, getting timely help apparently averted poverty for a higher percent of those that swiftly sought it and said they got all needed. This may include people who sought help with a health problem, rather than a hardship that a health problem may have caused.*

Some of the dynamics Poverty Tracker reports aren’t altogether new. The Census Bureau, for example, has used its survey data to follow near-poor people, including their lapses into full-blown poverty.

A study by an economist at the University of California, Davis tracked transitions in and out of poverty, linked to factors that help explain them. The Urban Institute cites many other studies that have parsed the in-and-out (and back in) dynamics.

But we don’t, to my knowledge, have anything as expansive for material hardship. Some other countries are far ahead of us, as a complex study by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) indicates.

The authors say what seems a suitable conclusion here. “Poverty is a complex issue, and a variety of approaches are required for its measurement and analysis.”

* The survey asks separate questions about health problems. These are certainly a disadvantage — the overall scope of the project. But analyses thus far have not linked them to material hardships, though one did look at the correlation to poverty.

 

 

 


House Republicans Take on Poverty, Have Little New to Say

June 7, 2016

House Speaker Paul Ryan may not be the policy wonk some say he is, but he’s a smart politician. He’s decided the Republicans have to start being for something, rather than just against everything the Obama administration has done — and Democrats want.

And he’s decided that being for radically less federal spending won’t do — not, as least, unless it’s a seemingly secondary benefit of policies that have something else going for them. Understandably, since reducing the deficit by spending cuts alone hasn’t polled well.

So he appointed House Republicans to task forces, each charged with producing policies that their party can be for. He revealed the first in the “better way” series this morning — the anti-poverty package.

This shouldn’t surprise us, since he’s made a big deal about his concern — genuine, I think — for poor Americans. Nor, I suppose, should the recycled rhetoric surprise us.

What might — it surely did me — is the egregious lack of policy specifics, except for the portion on evaluation. That, as you might expect, takes off from the claim that we can’t say whether most programs for low-income people work, but can say that most evaluated don’t.

The report leads off with an overview of the “welfare system” — not what we think of as welfare, but all federal programs that link eligibility to income levels, including some targeted to communities, not individuals.

Nothing new here, since it borrows from Ryan’s earlier account of the War on Poverty. The framework for what follows is thus that we’ve too many programs, run by too many federal agencies spending too much — and to no effect, since the poverty rate (two years ago) was basically the same as in 1996.

We’ve got a better measure than the official measure House Republicans use. An analysis based on it found that safety net programs the official measure doesn’t count have significantly reduced poverty rates.

The task force, however, uses the official rates as a jumping off point. Like Ryan’s earlier takes, its report asserts that the federal government measures success by how many people receive benefits, rather than by how many “get out of poverty.”

So how then are to we get more people out of poverty? We’ll expand work requirements, of course. All “work-capable” adults must work or prepare for work as a condition of receiving benefits of any sort.

How they’re to find jobs or suitable training opportunities the report doesn’t say — presumably, however, not through more federal funding.

We do, however, find an additional incentive states may use to prod them into finding jobs that pay far more than the minimum wage — a time limit, as well as a work requirement for people who live in public housing or receive any other sort of federally-funded housing assistance, e.g., vouchers.

It’s not only potentially employable adults who’ve got to work. The task force rehashes the old complaint about the number of children who receive Supplemental Security Income benefits because they have severe disabilities.

They receive benefits for too long, it says — on average, 26.7 years, which doesn’t seem all that long to me. However, they won’t receive benefits any more, if the task force has its way.

It would “reform” the program so as to provide “access to needed services in lieu of cash assistance.” No recognition whatever of disabilities that make gainful work impossible — or the fact that parents of SSI recipients must often support them indefinitely.

The task force does acknowledge “challenges” work-able adults face — child care, for example, transportation, stable housing and “help buying groceries.”

What then should the federal government do? “Work with community partners,” i.e. nonprofits and for-profit businesses, “to address hurdles.” Period.

The federal government could, however, penalize states that didn’t get people out of safety net programs swiftly — hurdles notwithstanding. It would give them an incentive by ratcheting down reimbursement rates as people remain in the programs longer. Not a forthright proposal. The report again fluffs.

On a more positive note, the task force recommends providing work-readiness activities for noncustodial parents so as to increase their ability to pay child support.

It would also let states receive waivers from unemployment insurance rules so they could explore better ways to get UI recipients back into the workforce. Nothing to object to here, though one might after seeing those better ways.

More generally, the task force would, of course, give states more flexibility. It alludes to letting them link welfare programs — presumably as block grants, though it uses neither that term nor others House Republicans have come to prefer.

Those voluntary links nevertheless recall Ryan’s Opportunity Grants — those mega-block grants he floated nearly two years ago.

We also find what seems a block grant in the section on education. First we’re treated to the usual trashing on Head Start for failing to produce demonstrable, lasting academic outcomes — broadened, however, to apply to early childhood education programs generally.

Then a suggestion that the federal government could “combine investments,” streamlining and simplifying its involvement. Involvement here seems reduced to sponsoring research and sharing results.

Ryan appointed a separate task force to deal with tax reform. We’re nevertheless treated to a rehash of the now-familiar claim that safety net benefits discourage work because recipients lose them as they earn more.

We’ve little evidence that they actually respond to the so-called cliffs by working less — or for less money — than they could. Perhaps they know that they’d almost always do better by working and earning what they can.

Be that as it may, the task force has only two general solutions. One would increase the Earned Income Tax Credit. For whom and how it doesn’t say.

The other solution — yet again — is more state flexibility. This supposedly would enable states to tailor benefits packages so that no one lost more than they gained by working.

Most, as the report acknowledges, don’t lose — at least until they’re earning quite a bit. That’s feature, not a bug, of course, in programs intended to help low-income people meet their basic needs. But it’s another dagger to thrust at the safety net.

Bottom line for me is that there isn’t much there there — to borrow from Gertrude Stein. Not, at least, much there there for us who’ve paid any attention to what House Republicans — Ryan in particular — have proposed and tried to justify ever since they gained a majority.

 

 

 


Problems Poor Face Lead to More Problems .. and Then More

June 2, 2016

A thoughtful op-ed in the Washington Post asks whether the District’s budget will recognize the struggles of low-income residents. They’re hardly unique to poor and near-poor people in D.C. The occasion and source of the numerous examples are, however.

And both what they tell us and what they don’t quite should give us pause.

The authors are co-chairs of the D.C. Consortium of Legal Services, a coalition of local nonprofits that provide legal advice and representation to low-income residents.

They pull key findings and quotes from the Consortium’s recently-issued report on its innovative study to learn the troubles of prospective clients and what sustains them, besides their own true grit.

What makes the study different from most issued by think thanks, advocates and other interested parties is that the researchers used focus groups and recorded what survey respondents actually said.

So it captured fragments of individuals’ experiences, as well as quantifiable areas of concern. We get those too. For example, we learn, to no one’s surprise, that nearly 60% of respondents worried about not having housing — both those who had it and the nearly one-third who didn’t.

What we don’t get, but can readily infer is that many, if not most District residents living on incomes at or below 200% of the federal poverty line face multiple problems — both housing and food insecurity, for example, plus job insecurity or inability to find a job at all.

Compounding these griefs, residents may, for understandable reasons, have problems paying their rent and other bills and with harassment from debt collectors — problems cited by almost half the respondents.

The survey did try to capture such compounding by asking respondents to name the most significant consequences of the most serious problem they’d recently faced.

So we get some indication of how one problem leads to another — or perhaps others. The survey results, as reported, don’t offer a clear picture of multiple consequences, however. Nor of how consequences multiply.

We know they do from personal stories — and our own reflections on how life is. But I don’t know of a study that maps cumulative sequences of misfortunes common to low-income adults in general.

We do have something pretty close for those who’ve been imprisoned. And most ranked at the bottom of the income scale before. We thus have poverty compounding poverty.

We’ve got a new, justly-acclaimed book that shows how eviction “is a cause, not only a condition, of poverty” — mainly because it leads to job loss, as people miss work to cope, have to move too far away or start making mistakes because they’re so frazzled or depressed.

We also have at least one study on the consequences of not having enough income to cover everyday expenses, plus some extra to set aside for emergencies. Survey results here indicate how not having enough leads to having even less — charges for bounced checks and unpaid credit card balances, for example.

So no loan available when, say, the car breaks down — except from a payday lender or the equivalent. Thus a higher debt burden — and possibly more bounced check charges or loss of the car needed to get to work.

High percents of low-income people with little or no emergency savings report poorer health and less productivity at work because they’re understandably worried about their financial situation.

Either or both can lead to loss of a job — and problems finding another, now that so many employers routinely check credit histories. So a greater likelihood of depression and/or conflict with a spouse or partner. A breakup perhaps. And perhaps then homelessness.

The Consortium co-chairs cite an observation law professor Steven Wexler made many years ago. “Poor people aren’t like rich people without money,” he said. The latter lead “harmonious and settled lives, occasionally disrupted by a car accident … or some other misfortune.”

Money is, in a way, what distinguishes them. But what Wexler clearly intends is a contrast in what happens when a reasonably well-off and a poor person get hit by a car.

The difference isn’t merely that the well-off have good health insurance, paid time off from work and money to rent a car — or auto insurance that covers the cost. The accident is a singular event — not a trouble piling on top of and leading to others.

“[F]or people living in poverty,” the co-chairs say, the car crash and other incidents more dire, e.g., eviction, “are not life’s little disruptions. They comprise life itself.”

The question, they conclude, is what we do with such insights — beyond, of course, advocating for better budgets. I leave you to ponder that, as I still am.

 


Finding a Teachable Moment in the Flint Water Crisis

March 14, 2016

We’ve all read about the lead-laden water in Flint, Michigan. Flint is far from the only community where tests have found alarmingly high numbers of children with alarmingly high levels of lead in their blood. And water isn’t the only source — not even the most common.

Flint has prompted a spate of news reports and op-eds on toxic lead exposure, as you’ve probably noted. It’s also prompted federal-level initiatives to ramp up prevention. I’ll defer these to a separate post and deal here with the basics — many new to me and perhaps to some of you also.

Harms Excessive Lead Levels Do

When lead gets into our bodies, they distribute it to organs like our livers, kidneys and brains. They confuse it with essential nutrients and try to use it, instead of them to build and repair bones, muscles and brain connections.

Damages to young children are especially severe. This is partly because their bodies absorb relatively more lead. And it’s more likely to get into their bodies, especially if they live in homes where the paint on the walls and/or woodwork is still lead-based.

You know how babies are. They crawl around on the floor, which may have paint dust or flecks on it. They put their hands in their mouths. They chew on things — and can reach more things to chew on as they learn to toddle.

Those first few years are when the brain does much of its development work, making connections among cells at an extraordinarily high rate.

This, if I understand correctly, is why lead in the body then can result in a range of irreversible damages, e.g., learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, difficulties coordinating so-called small motor actions like picking up something with a finger and a thumb.

For somewhat similar reasons, babies may be born with damaged brains if their mothers have lead in their systems — or dead because their mothers miscarry.

Flint Children Just the Tip of the Iceberg

In one respect, the Flint crisis is as particular as the decisions that led to it. In another, it’s one case among many that haven’t gotten the popular media attention they deserve. Nor the rush to remedy — even belatedly, as in Michigan.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof cites two communities, a state and a large part of a second where tests have found higher percents of children with dangerously high levels of lead in their blood.

The Detroit News fills in with more communities in Michigan. A reporter, also for the Times, adds Cleveland and several other cities. Vox reports 18 in Pennsylvania where a higher percent of children tested in the danger range than in Flint.

All told, well over half a million young children have blood lead levels higher than the maximum the Centers for Disease Control uses for its risk analyses, according to the Center’s (somewhat dated) estimate.

Where the Lead Comes From

Flint isn’t the only community where corrosion in publicly-owned water pipes has released lead into tap water. Some fellow District of Columbia residents will recall our own lead-infused water crisis.

The most common sources of lead poisoning in children, however, are lead-based paint in their homes and soil that’s got flakes of lead-based exterior paint in it and/or deposits of lead that was in the exhaust emitted by cars and trucks before Congress mandated a gradual phase-out of leaded gasoline.

Not an Equal Opportunity Risk

Flint is an extraordinarily poor community, with a poverty rate of 40%, according to the latest Census survey. The rate soars to nearly 71% for children under five, the highest-risk age group. The community is also predominantly black — not unrelated, one assumes, to the poverty rates.

The poverty rate in Cleveland, also predominantly black, is barely lower — and the rate for children under five somewhat over 64%. More than 17% of the young children tested there (most weren’t) had blood lead levels over the CDC high-risk threshold. Recent tests found a 26.5% toxic rate in one poor part of the city.

CDC has found high blood lead levels in relatively more black children nationwide. It (indirectly) attributes this to older housing and poverty.

But it’s not the age of the house that matters. It’s whether the house was repainted since 1978, when a federal rule banned lead in house paint — and whether the new paint still completely masks the old, if it was. Whether it’s always masked the old matters too.

Fair to assume that poor families are more likely to live in poorly-maintained buildings — and in buildings closer to highways, bus terminals and the like, which were sources of lead that’s still in the soil.

What About Race in the Place

Experts interviewed by Cleveland Plain Dealer reporters attribute the persistent risks to racism. On the one hand, red-lining policies concentrated blacks in neighborhoods then neglected, they say.

On the other hand, evidence of lead poisoning in children was shrugged off or blamed on the kids and their parents. Sound familiar? That may be history now. But Cleveland’s failures to investigate and require remedies isn’t — and not only due to funding shortages, it seems.

Congressman Dan Kildee, who represents Flint, says that race was “the single greatest determinant” of what happened there, referring, it seems, to how the governor and his people discounted residents’ complaints.

Huffington Post reporters go further, citing the waste auto factories dumped into the Flint River as one, but not the only example of environmental racism. It’s nevertheless hard to pinpoint racism when poverty seems a factor too.

“It’s not just about black lives mattering,” says a sociologist who studies impoverished communities. “Poor people’s lives don’t matter.” The water crisis, he adds, “just made everybody notice” what had been going on for a long time.

Perhaps the crisis will prove “a teachable moment for America,” as a former CDC director says. A lot of lessons for state and local officials. Some for Congress and at least one federal agency too.

Of which more shortly.