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.

 

 


When Personal Responsibility Paves the Way to Homelessness

January 21, 2016

Many accounts of homelessness focus on personal financial crises — a job loss, for example, a serious illness or injury that results in huge medical bills, an eruption of domestic violence that impels a spouse or partner to flee the breadwinner.

Others cite less sudden crises due to mental illness and/or substance abuse, both ultimately leading to lack of money for housing. Still others take a different tack — rising housing costs, with no commensurate wage increases to cover them.

But sometimes families become homeless for altogether other reasons. Here’s a still-unfinished true story and some untruths it exposes.

I’ve written before about Peter,* who does occasional work for me. Now he and his daughters are homeless, though not (yet) eligible for federally-funded assistance as such.

Peter must depend on earnings from short-term jobs with flexible hours because he often must drop everything to tend to his chronically ill younger daughter. But between what he makes and her Supplemental Security Income benefits, he’s had enough to cover the family’s housing costs.

Seems his landlord didn’t have enough for the mortgage payments, however. So the lender repossessed the building and evicted the tenants.

Shortly before and after, a series of untoward events diminished Peter’s earnings and, at the same time, forced him to come up with extra money. His daughter’s new medication caused drastic side-effects. So he had to stay home with her for some days.

Then his car got towed because he’d parked it illegally, seeing no other way he could sell the newspapers he’d already purchased, as all vendors of our local homelessness paper do. No way for Peter to get to other jobs unless he paid the fine and the hefty towing-storage fee.

His sister then borrowed the car and got arrested for drunk driving. Immediately thrown in jail because it was her second such offense. Peter felt he had to bail her out, which, of course, meant a fee to a bail bondsman. And he had to bail the car out too because the authorities had impounded it.

Now, none of these things or even all in combination would have left Peter with nothing to spend except what he could earn day by day if he’d had the emergency savings that financial experts advise. But he could just get by when everything went smoothly.

So at this point, he, his daughters and his sister are holed up in a cheap motel while he waits for the tax refund that will cover the upfront costs of a new apartment lease — or so he hopes.

He’s thus far found no apartment he can afford. In the family’s home county, a two-bedroom apartment — very snug for them — costs, on average, $1,625 a month. And he sure won’t get help from the local housing authority. He’s been on its waiting list for some considerable time.

As I put together the pieces of this story, I recalled part of Tolstoy’s frame for Anna Karenina. “[E]ach unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But the story has other, more pertinent lessons.

Right-wing policymakers and the gurus they listen to often trace poverty to a failure of personal responsibility. Well, who exercises more personal responsibility than Peter, who could have left his daughters with their egregiously negligent mother — and his sister miserable in jail and then alone to struggle against her alcoholism?

More specifically, the Republican Presidential candidates at the recent “expanding opportunity” forum seemingly concurred on three ways our public policies and programs could reduce poverty.

First, they have to do a better job of promoting marriage — not only of getting people (of opposite sexes) to marry, but of inducing them to stay married and in the same home. Hard to see how persisting in a failed marriage to a persistent substance abuser would have made life better for Peter and his kids.

Second, public policies have to get people working for enough pay so they can support themselves and their dependents. Peter could do that if his younger daughter had neither a chronic illness nor developmental disabilities. He has in-demand technical skills and an entrepreneurial spirit.

As things stand now, however, he can’t responsibly delegate care for the daughter to a home healthcare aide or anyone else. Too many emergencies. Too many judgment calls only a parent can make. And too much time needed for his role in the education she’s receiving to develop independent living skills.

Third, our major federal safety net programs should get rolled into block grants that states can spend pretty much however they see fit. I’ll leave it to Center on Budget and Policy Priorities President Robert Greenstein to explain (again) why this is such a bad idea.

I’ll merely note that the programs Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and forum moderator Paul Ryan would replace with super-block grants expressly include major federal housing assistance programs.

If Peter’s got problems getting back into an affordable apartment now, imagine how he and his family would fare if states had no obligation to provide vouchers or public housing — and had less in real dollars to fund any of the block-granted programs that now serve low-income people’s needs.

And imagine what would happen if he couldn’t rely on Medicaid for the services that keep his daughter alive — a distinct possibility if the program were block-granted, as Ryan and his House Republican colleagues intend.

* As before, I’ve changed his name to protect his and his family’s privacy.


Far More in King’s Dream Than a Color-Blind Society

January 18, 2016

Not long after Congress passed the since-enfeebled Voting Rights Act, Martin Luther King, Jr. turned his attention to poverty and income inequality.

This, for him, was clearly a next step, along with opposition to the country’s engagement in Vietnam. He and colleagues at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had launched a Poor People’s Campaign and were planning a demonstration akin to the original March on Washington.

King signaled the campaign’s agenda in a book entitled Where Do We Go From Here? — here being after the enactment of most of our major federal nondiscrimination laws.

His answer took off from a critique of the anti-poverty approach still reflected in many of our public policies. They proceed, he said, “from a premise that poverty is a consequence of multiple evils,” e.g., bad housing, lack of education.

Not a faulty notion, he implied. But it led to a piecemeal approach — “a housing program to transform living conditions, improved educational facilities,” etc. And the programs were neither coordinated nor sufficiently funded “to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor.”

Beyond this, they all sought “to solve poverty by solving something else.” The solution to poverty is for everyone to have enough money. So “we must create full employment or we must create incomes” by establishing a guaranteed minimum.

The latter has garnered more attention — for two reasons, I’d guess. On the one hand, it seems radically progressive. On the other, it has conservative roots and current support from some minimum government types.

King had in mind something far more ambitious than proposals conservatives had floated or the version President Nixon wanted Congress to pass as a replacement for welfare. Likewise what Charles Murray more recently advocated as a substitute for all social welfare programs, including Social Security and Medicare.

King’s guaranteed income would “be pegged to the median income of society.” Once set there, it would increase automatically to maintain parity with the median.

It wouldn’t, on the other hand, go automatically to every adult or family. It would supplement, so far as necessary income gained from work and/or investments, which have always served as “an assured income for the wealthy,” he noted.

Now, one might think that full employment has gotten its proper share of attention too. But what King had in mind, as I understand it, differs significantly from the way it’s commonly understood, i.e., as a situation where everyone willing and able to work is working or merely between jobs.

This, for King, was necessary, but not sufficient. Recall that he was killed in Memphis, where he’d gone to support a strike by black sanitation workers. They had employment obviously. They were demanding safer working conditions, a wage increase and recognition of their union.

“It is criminal,” King said there, “to have people working on a full-time basis and a full-time job getting part-time income.” With “wages so low,” the working poor — as most poor people in the country were, he said — “cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation.” In other words, poverty-level wages were a form of segregation.

King’s Memphis message grew out of the Freedom Budget developed by two other civil rights leaders. It called for, among other things, a higher minimum wage, unemployment benefits and compensation for workers injured on the job.

As the Poor People’s Campaign got in gear, the $2 an hour minimum wage the Freedom Budget called for had become a living wage. And jobs for everyone who could work had become “meaningful” jobs, including at least a million more providing “socially useful” careers in public service.

King himself had broadened the meaning of full employment in another way too. He noted — astutely, given the anxieties triggered by the first spate of big-city riots — that “Negro youth … are the explosive outsiders of the American expansion.”

Many “have left the labor market completely,” having “faced so many closed doors and so many crippling defeats.” They “are alienated from the routines of work” and so will initially “require work situations which permit flexibility.”

The jobs will also develop skills. They will nevertheless be jobs, not training, which often “becomes a way of avoiding the issue of unemployment.”

Ultimately, full employment, so understood, will help solve other major problems cited in the Freedom Budget — or so supporters thought. It would, of course, generate revenues to “finance improvements we all need,” including “decent housing” to replace the clusters that form slums.

At the same time, workers would have the wherewithal “to do a great deal on their own to alter housing decay,” as King’s Where Do We Go argued. And blacks, who were disadvantaged by discrimination, as well as poverty would have “the additional weapon of cash to use in their struggle.”

King hoped that the guaranteed income proposal would provide the basis for a biracial coalition, since two-thirds of the country’s poor were white. The Freedom Budget drafters — and presumably King, since he endorsed it for the SLCC — had similar hopes for full employment.

“The workings of our economy,” they said, “often pit the white poor and the black poor against each other.” They termed that “a tragedy.”

Likewise the fact “that groups only one generation removed from poverty themselves, haunted by the memory of scarcity and fearful of slipping back, step on the fingers of those struggling up the ladder.” Anyone who sees no relevance to current events is blessedly insulated from the Presidential campaigns.

We have, however, made progress, in some respects, since King unfolded his dream of an end to segregation and other then-legal forms of discrimination. Not saying we don’t have a long way to go before black children (and adults) are no longer “judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” But progress nonetheless.

We’d be hard put, I think, to find anything like such progress toward King’s dream of a society where no one is poor and everyone has, at all times, enough income to live on and then some. Worth pondering as we celebrate his birthday.


Third-World Poverty Among the Most Native Americans of All

January 7, 2016

Cleaning out my email box, I came belatedly on a post by Nick Tilsen, Executive Director of the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, which aims to end poverty on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Poverty there is broader and deeper than any we commonly read about — truly shocking to think it’s here in America.

The poverty rate of the Oglala Lakota who live on the reservation is about 48%, according to a development plan. That’s nearly three and a half times the latest rate for South Dakota, though it’s home to six Indian reservations.

We see the ripple effect of such acute deprivation in median incomes. On Pine Ridge, the household halfway between the highest and lowest has an income of $27,065 — or at least did in 2010, when the Census Bureau collected the figures the planners used.*

The median income for the state as a whole was about $19,300 higher then and the nationwide median about $24,000 higher.

We get a better sense of what Tilsen refers to as “third-world poverty conditions” from other figures he pulls from the development plan.

For example, the average household on the Pine Ridge reservation consists of somewhere between 6.7 and 9.2 people, as compared to 2.6 people nationwide. This clearly indicates severe over-crowding — as many as nine people in a two or three-bedroom home.

Nine percent of the dwellings have inadequate plumbing, as compared to a half percent nationwide. In other words, the houses or apartment units don’t have hot and cold running water, a bathtub or shower and/or a flush toilet. Or they may not have even a substandard bathroom.

Almost as many Pine Ridge dwellings (8%) lack adequate kitchen facilities, i.e., a sink with running water, a refrigerator and a stove or other “built-in burners” like those sunk into countertops.

Living conditions account in part, though far from entirely for the average life expectancy of Pine Ridge residents — just 48 years for men and 52 for women. Both are about 30 years less than for the U.S. population as a whole.

The development plan cites other factors that help explain the foreshortened lives of Pine Ridge residents — lack of access to healthful food, for example, and to preventive health care.

All these and others closely related, e.g., substance abuse, help account for another reason Pine Ridge residents, on average, die before they reach middle age — a suicide rate that’s more than twice the national average.

It’s customary — and largely correct — to trace the relatively high black poverty rate back to slavery, the Jim Crow regime and racist laws and policies that disadvantaged blacks in Northern states.

The Native American poverty rate has historical roots too. Those of us whose history classes predate efforts to put a more positive spin on the westward expansion, among other things, know something of them — smallpox-infected blankets, massacres, treaties broken when whites decided they wanted the lands granted after all.

We may even know that a unilateral decision made back in 1840 transferred control of Native American lands and other assets to a federal agency. It still acts as trustee, despite a long track record of mismanagement.

Shawn Regan at the Property and Environment Research Center argues that the trust arrangement, plus other federal controls “keep Native Americans in poverty.”

Tilsen also cites policies designed to eradicate “cultural ways,” e.g., forcing children into boarding schools where they had to look and behave like white, Christian children — this because “all the Indian in the race should be dead,” as the founder of the first such federally-funded school explained.

Well, knowing what accounts for the extraordinary poverty in Native American communities is one thing. Feeling morally responsible for ending it quite another. People in those communities believe we should, Tilsen says. If we do, we could end their poverty within a generation.

That seems a tall order. But he’s done a fine service in raising awareness of a poverty still perpetuated that’s “largely out of sight and out of mind to mainstream American society.”

* The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey — the usual source of our most detailed poverty and income figures for specific populations — reports them for Native Americans and Alaskan Natives together. The plan drafters presumably used the actual data sets.

 


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