Census Bureau Busts Myths (Again)

July 20, 2015

You know the myths well, I suppose. Safety net benefits trap recipients in poverty — an assertion cagily repeated by the House Agriculture Committee Chairman just a few weeks ago. They’re a spider web, Presidential candidate Jeb Bush opines.

A new Census Bureau report tells us otherwise. About a third of the people who participated in one or more of our major safety net programs did so for a year or less during a recent four-year period that includes part of the Great Recession.

About the Report

The Census report updates a very similar program participation report issued about three years ago. Both use an ongoing survey of a sample of American households. So it’s possible to track entries into and exits from major safety net programs over time.

The report focuses on people who benefited from any of six programs that limited eligibility based, at least in part, on income — Medicaid, including the Children’s Health Insurance Program, SNAP (the food stamp program), SSI (Supplemental Security Income), housing assistance and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, lumped together with dwindling general assistance programs.

Many, many numbers in the report — some in the text, even more in graphs. It’s hard — for me, at least — to tease out what they tell us from a policy perspective. I’ve nevertheless taken a crack at it, as follows.

Not Much Program Growth

Participation rates in the six programs rose somewhat from 2009 to 2011, but then leveled off. In 2012, slightly more than one in five people (21.3%) participated in at least one.

Medicaid had the highest average monthly participation rate, increasing from 13.9% in 2009 to 15.3% in 2012. States that chose to expand their Medicaid programs presumably accounts for this.

On the other hand, the participation rate for housing assistance remained basically flat, at 4.2%. And the rate for TANF/General assistance ticked down to a paltry 1% in 2012. Not much of a safety net there for the poorest among us.

Deterrents to Work

The new Census figures don’t deliver a clear rebuttal to the claims that safety net programs discourage beneficiaries from working. They do, however, tell us a few relevant things.

First and foremost, by far and away the high percent of beneficiaries are under 18 — most presumably too young to work. In an average month during 2012, slightly over 39% of safety net beneficiaries were in this age group. That’s well over double the participation rate for working-age adults.

Among them, 33.5% of those who were unemployed participated in at least one safety net program during the four-year period. This is more than 10% higher than the rate for their peers who weren’t counted as part of the labor force because they were neither working nor actively seeking work.

Hard to Live on Those Benefits

Anyone who thinks the safety net is a comfortable hammock ought to take a look at the Census Bureau’s findings on benefits. During the four-year period, the median benefit for all six programs was $404 a month, adjusted for inflation.

The median is skewed upward by SSI benefits, with a median of $698 a month — about 75% of the federal poverty line for a single person.

Other major cash and near-cash benefits drag the overall median down. TANF/GA participants received a median of $321 a month.

Cycling In and Out

Long about the time the Census Bureau issued its report, Vox published a post by a working woman who’s angry as all get out because people look down on her for participating in SNAP.

She says, among other things, that she doesn’t “do it all the time” — only when she can’t pay her bills and also buy food for her family. She’s never participated for more than 18 months at a stretch.

We can’t see this sort of cycling in and out in the figures the Bureau reports. But we do see something that suggests it — and more clearly, the cycling out part.

Fewer than half the people who participated in any of the safety net programs did so for more than three of the four years the report covers. Variation there, depending on program — from 49.4% for housing assistance to 9.8% for TANF/GA.

At the same time, TANF/GA racked up by far and a way the highest percent participating for no more than a year. This doesn’t, of course, mean that states’ TANF program do a great job at moving poor parents from welfare to work that pays enough to support them and their children.

It could indicate how very low some states set their income cut-offs for continuing eligibility and/or their success at cutting their caseloads by other means, e.g., with sanctions that effectively bump families out of their programs or extremely short time limits, a strategy some Red states have adopted.

It surely does, however, suggest that families don’t linger in TANF because those benefits afford them such a comfortable hammock. Or snare them in “perpetual dependence” because they’d lose the cash and have to pay higher taxes if they moved up the income ladder. (Quoting Bush again here.)

So far as SNAP is concerned, less than a third (30.4%) of those who received them did so for more than a year — whether for 12 months running or some months at one point, some months later we can’t tell.

Another 38.6% participated for three to four years. This could indicate, among other things, under-employment — not failures to work by those who could be expected to, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says.

We know, from other sources, that it indicates rock-bottom earnings by fast-food workers and many in the retail sales sector.

Will any of this make a difference to policymakers who evince such concern about how our safety net programs discourage work — and are growing by unsustainable leaps and bounds? A rhetorical question. Yet the rest of us — some policymakers included — can come to a better understanding of how dynamic “the dynamics of economic well-being” in this country are, thanks to the Census analysis.


Low-Income Children Can Move Up If They Grow Up in a Good Place

June 11, 2015

We know you’ve got to choose the right parents if you want to wind up higher on the income scale — or so the research tells us. Now we’ve got a massive data analysis telling us they’ve got to choose the right zip code. And they’ve got to do it while you’re young, preferably before you turn ten.

The analysis was the focal point of a recent “conversation” about place, opportunity and policy hosted by the Brookings Institution. Featured speaker was the lead analyst, Harvard economics professor Raj Chetty.

Some mind-opening data, a handful of policy recommendations and a striking (to me) focus on race discrimination. Summary, brief as I could make it, follows.

Place Matters for Children’s Future, With Caveats

Children born in the bottom fifth of the income scale have a much better chance of moving to the top fifth as adults if they grow up in a community that gives them and their families advantages like decent schools, safe homes and streets, ready access to jobs and beneficial networks. No surprise here. But new numbers, some surprising.

Chances for low-income children raised in Washington, D.C. are 10.5%. This is better than the national average — 7.5%. And it’s a whole lot better than their counterparts’ chances in most of the deep South. But their chances would be better if they’d grown up in San Jose, California, hub of the Silicon Valley.

Shifting the income level, as the breakouts do, children whose families have incomes in the bottom quarter of the income scale will earn 5.8% more as young adults if they grow up in D.C. than if they’d grown up in “an average place.” But if they’d grown up in nearby Fairfax County, they could look forward to more than double that relative income gain.

In short, place matters, as another recent study also showed. This one, also co-authored by Chetty, reevaluated results of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Moving to Opportunity pilot.

Families got housing vouchers, but only if they moved to lower-poverty neighborhoods. An earlier evaluation measured increases in parents’ employment and income. Basically, zip.

But when Chetty and his colleagues looked at how preteens fared as adults, they found a 31% boost in earnings, compared to peers whose families didn’t get the MTO vouchers. This, I would guess, is at least partly because the young MTO beneficiaries had a higher college attendance rate.

For older children, however, moves to opportunity had negative effects on earnings, as well as other measures. The disruption of the move outweighed the advantages of living in a higher-income neighborhood, the researchers say.

What Public Policies Could Do

At the highest plane, these findings support two policy thrusts. The first is to help more families move out of high-poverty neighborhoods — and to do so while their children are very young. That would seem to require more housing vouchers, perhaps with subsidies scaled to encourage use in mixed-income neighborhoods.

But there’d have to be more relatively low-cost housing in those neighborhoods too. Several panelists at the Brookings event had quite a bit to say about exclusionary zoning, e.g., density limits that cap building height and/or prohibit multi-unit housing.

At the same time, it’s both practically and theoretically infeasible to move all poor and near-poor families out of high-poverty neighborhoods. And not all families want to move, fearing loss of “social capital,” e.g., connection to a local congregation, supportive friends nearby.

So the second major policy thrust is to improve those neighborhoods. Oddly, Chetty and panelists didn’t delve into the how issue, though one recommended diversifying public housing locations so as to dilute the poverty concentration.

Discussion focused mostly on affording families in high-poverty neighborhoods access to opportunities elsewhere — better schools especially. Recurrent, favorable references to vouchers, lotteries and charter schools. One panelist also mentioned redrawn public school attendance zones.

Chetty himself believes we need more “big data” analyses to pinpoint initiatives that would make economically-disadvantaged neighborhoods less disadvantageous for the children growing up in them.

But he did cite possibilities, based on his research to date — specifically, neighborhood characteristics correlated to better (and worse) outcomes for kids. Big news here is that the race in the place matters a lot.

Race Matters for All Children

We all know now, if we didn’t before that our public safety and criminal justice systems often make life worse — if they don’t end it — for residents in predominantly black neighborhoods. The victims are usually blacks.

What Chetty’s research tells us is that the racial makeup of a neighborhood affects economic mobility for whites, as well as blacks. Outcomes worsen as black density increases for both, he said.

We don’t need his research, though we’ve got it now to identify major factors — under-funded schools with over-crowded classrooms, less experienced teachers and insufficient resources to mitigate disadvantages that impair children’s ability to learn, lack of convenient public transportation, etc.

What Policies Have Done and Could

Plowing more money into the schools, transportation systems and the like would seem a solution to the drag on upward mobility that living in a predominantly black neighborhood exerts. And indeed, it is, but not the only one. Nor sufficient because it would address symptoms, but not root causes.

Several panelists zeroed in on the latter. Predominantly black neighborhoods —  and their attendant disadvantages — didn’t just happen, they stressed. The neighborhoods reflect housing segregation policies dating back to the 1920s.

And we’ve still got policies that perpetuate segregation. More widespread private-sector practices, however, e.g., selective treatment by real estate agents, egregiously unequal mortgage loan terms.

The 1968 Fair Housing Act was supposed to dismantle segregation and prevent further discrimination on various bases, including race.

But weak and/or co-opted local agencies let business go on as usual. And HUD has never had to resources to effectively enforce the law. Nor has it always been allowed to do what it could, as a ProPublica report indicates.

HUD has proposed new rules that would put teeth into the Fair Housing Act’s requirement that it — and thus state and local agencies — “affirmatively further” the purposes of the law. The final rules — assuming they’re issued and enforced — could make place matter less for low-income children’s chances of moving up the income scale. Make life better for their parents too.

But they won’t make every place a launching pad for upward mobility. For that, we need a broader range of policy initiatives. Bigger investments in equalizing opportunities too.

 

 


Rent’s Still Too Damn High for Lower-Income DC Residents

May 28, 2015

About 41,000 District of Columbia households are currently on the DC Housing Authority’s waiting list. Nearly half said they were homeless when they signed up for housing assistance.

Very disheartening, since there’s no way that all those households will get vouchers to cover what they can’t afford for rent or a chance to live in public housing. It’s even more disheartening when we consider how many additional households would be on the list if it weren’t still closed to new applicants.

The District’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year will fund more vouchers, as well as more construction and/or preservation of housing that’s affordable for the lowest-income residents.

Yet these investments will just make a dent in one of the District’s acute and growing problems — the shrinking supply of rental housing that’s affordable for those residents and for some with too much income to get on the DCHA waiting list, even if it were open.

The latest annual report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition gives us diverse perspectives on how “out of reach” rental housing is for low-income District residents, as well as some we wouldn’t ordinarily consider low-income.

Our point of reference here is the monthly cost of an available, modestly-priced two-bedroom apartment, plus basic utilities — technically, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s fair market rent. Here in the District, the FMR for the apartment is $1,458.

To afford it, based on the usual 30% of income standard, a worker would have to earn at least $28.04 an hour — $58,320 for the year.

Renters in the District, however, earn, on average, an estimated $26.08 an hour. So the apartment is roughly $100 a month more than what they can afford. Doesn’t seem so bad until we consider that we’ve got some very high earners who bump up the average because they prefer, at least for the time being, to rent.

Income shortfalls are much larger as we drill down. For example, an extremely low-income household could afford to pay only $819 for rent, plus those utilities. Or so the NLIHC report tells us.

We need to recall that many households have incomes far below what NLIHC uses for its affordability figure — the maximum for the ELI category, i.e., 30% of the median for the area. That’s true everywhere, of course.

What’s not is the basis for the figure. As I’ve said before, the median income that HUD — and hence NLIHC — use for the District is inflated because the area includes some very well-off suburbs. So the apartment is almost surely further out of reach for even the highest-income ELIs.

One would need to do some fancy number-crunching to say how much further. The DC Fiscal Policy Institute, which did something of the sort two years ago, found that the District’s own median income was 23% lower than the area median.

No such caveats needed as we move down the income scale. We learn, for example, that a District resident with a full-time minimum wage job could afford to pay $494 a month for rent — roughly a third of the FMR for the two-bedroom apartment.

In other words, a household would have to have three full-time minimum wage workers to afford it. Looked at another way, as NLIHC always does, a minimum wage worker would have to work 118 hours.

Residents with severe disabilities who rely on SSI (Supplemental Security Income) benefits are, as always, in the worst shape of the groups NLIHC reports on. Those who receive the maximum benefit could afford no more than $220 a month for rent.

Moving beyond the report itself, I’ll note that the maximum monthly benefit a parent with two children can receive from the District’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program falls short of the FMR for the apartment by more than $1,000.

Don’t need to add, I suppose, that the apartment is even more absurdly out of reach for the 6,300 or so families who’ve had their benefits cut repeatedly and will have to manage somehow on what remains during the one-year cut-off delay the DC Council just approved.

As the NLIHC report indicates, measly public benefits alone don’t account for the gaps between what low-income renters could afford and what they’d have to pay — or in many cases, are paying by scrimping on other needs, juggling bills and/or resorting to high-interest loans.

Nor does the fact that inexpensive apartments are “going, going, gone” from the local market, as DCFPI recently reported. As it also documented, incomes for renters in the bottom two-fifths of the income scale have actually lost purchasing power since 2002 — or at least had, as of 2013.

These all enter into the mix, however. We’ve got a shortage of low-cost rental housing, a commensurate shortage of vouchers that would make moderate-cost units affordable, public benefits that don’t cover basic living costs, a minimum wage that’s still far less than a genuine living wage and too many residents without the education, training and/or job opportunities they’d have if our laws and programs achieved what policymakers intended.

A web of problems underlying the seemingly straightforward “out of reach” update, but all within reach of solutions.

 

 


Public Housing Policies Deny Second Chances to Ex-Offenders

April 9, 2015

The Washington Post recently told the story of a highly-qualified woman who’s had difficulties getting — and keeping — jobs because she committed a crime 25 years ago. We’ve had quite a few such stories, plus reports, conferences and the like.

But a criminal record — not necessarily a conviction — can effectively condemn a low-income person to homelessness in another way. And homelessness can propel the person back into the criminal justice system. Congress bears some share of the responsibility for this, but not as much as public housing authorities.

Federal law prohibits PHAs and private-sector owners of federally-subsidized housing from accepting as tenants people who’ve been convicted of certain sex offenses or of manufacturing methamphetamine in federally-assisted housing.

The ban applies to these ex-offenders not only as renters, but as members of households that could otherwise qualify. Generally speaking, PHAs must also impose a three-year ban on people who’ve been evicted because of a drug-related crime.

Both PHAs and the federally-assisted project owners must have written policies specifying how they will screen applicants and decide whom to house. These must include the aforementioned bans. They must also comply with some legal limits, e.g., the anti-discrimination provisions in the Fair Housing Act.

But within these bounds, PHAs and project owners can exercise discretion. And that, all too often, means denial, as a new report from the Shriver Center on Poverty Law shows.

The researchers reviewed more than 300 policies. They found a goodly number that use their permissible discretion — even exceed it — to deny housing to people who pose no manifest risk to tenants, employees, the owners themselves or the property.

Nor do they establish a legitimate basis for determining that the screened-out people would adversely affect the “right to peaceful enjoyment of the property” — a screening criterion the law allows.

The report identifies four major ways policies deny affordable housing to people who deserve a second chance, as well as some that shouldn’t need it.

Unreasonable lookback periods. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development expects policies to set a reasonable lookback period, i.e., time limit, for the criminal history they’ll consider relevant.

But some policies have no time limit — or even expressly establish lifetime bans beyond those federal law requires. Some others look back as far as 25 years. So an applicant in his early 40s could be rejected because he got into a gang fight as a teenager.

Use of arrests as proof of criminal activity. The law allows PHAs and project owners to screen out people who’ve “engaged in” certain criminal activities, rather than only those who’ve actually been convicted.

Some policies expressly deny housing on the basis of arrests. Others treat arrests as evidence, though not necessarily conclusive proof of criminal activity. In either case, people are guilty, even if a judge or jury has found the contrary — or even if they were never tried.

Knowing, as we do, how our criminal justice system sweeps in a far higher proportion of blacks than whites, these policies arguably violate not only the Fair Housing Act, but similar state laws or provisions in their broader civil rights laws.

Overbroad categories of criminal activity. The law apparently envisions policies designed to protect tenants and others on covered housing properties from harm, truly intrusive disruption — or in the case of drug felonies, perhaps temptation.

Some policies go much further, effectively banning people with a record of any felony whatever — or in fact, no felony, but a misdemeanor, e.g., trespassing, urinating in public.

You see what a catch-22 we have here. Homeless people who’ve got no place to take a pee, except in an alley or behind a bush denied housing because some police officer decided to run them in.

Underuse of mitigating circumstances. The law requires PHAs to consider mitigating circumstances if applicants appeal denials based on their criminal records, i.e., reasons the crimes don’t reflect their current or likely behavior.

These may include gainful, legal employment, participation in a job training program or some other program designed to help ex-offenders stay on the straight and narrow, a strong support network or even simply the fact that the crime was committed a long time ago and says nothing about suitability as a tenant now.

Both PHAs and project owners may consider such circumstances in their initial screenings. Policies reviewed indicate that some PHAs do, while others don’t even acknowledge the opportunity to ask for reconsideration.

Nearly four years ago, HUD urged PHAs to exercise their discretion in ways that would tend to give ex-offenders second chances. “A place to live,” its letter said, is “one of the most fundamental building blocks of a stable life.”

The PHAs “essentially … put it in their pocket and continued to deny people housing,” says the Shriver Center’s Director of Housing Justice.

The new report is primarily a message to HUD, which, it says, should step up the pressure. But we can use it as a lens to screen our local PHAs’ screening policies and practices.

The latter could well include what pressure, if any they exert on project owners that won’t rent to people who may — or may not — have committed a crime. There’s obviously a role here for our civil rights enforcement authorities too.

And for our policymakers, who need to step up funding so there’s room in public and other subsidized housing for everyone who needs it, including those who deserve a second chance.


How We Could Cut Child Poverty By More Than Half and Pay for It Too

February 9, 2015

Back in 2007, the Half in Ten campaign set a goal of cutting poverty in America in half in 10 years. Not doing so well at that, are we?

Well, says the Children’s Defense Fund, what if we ended child poverty in this very wealthy country? That, of course, would mean ending poverty for parents and guardians too.

CDF recently released a report to take us a long way toward the child poverty goal. It offers nine recommendations that would reduce child poverty by roughly 60% — and deliver more economic resources for families of all but 3% of children who are poor now.

We’d have 6.6 million fewer children living in poverty, including half a million who are deeply poor, i.e., in households with incomes below 50% of the applicable poverty threshold.

What’s Notable

Several things distinguish this report. The first is that it builds on existing policies and programs that have proved effective. The aim is less to innovate than to increase reach — and in some cases, effectiveness as well.

The second, which is more distinctive, is that the report includes poverty-reduction impacts for each of the recommendations.* These reflect analyses by experts at the Urban Institute, who used Census Bureau data and its Supplemental Poverty Measure — a more complex and accurate measure than the one used for official purposes.

The third distinctive thing is that the report identifies specific policy and other budget changes that would yield enough savings or additional revenues to offset what the recommendations would cost.

What CDF Recommends

The recommendations fall into two big buckets. In the first are recommendations that would enable more low-income parents to work — or work more than they do — and to make their work pay more, both directly and through the tax code.

On the work side itself, we have subsidized jobs, like those temporarily funded through the Recovery Act. Also enough childcare subsidies so that all eligible families below 150% of the federal poverty line could afford high-quality child care during their working hours.

On the pay-more side, we, of course, have an increase in the federal minimum wage, but also an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit and changes in the Child Care and Dependent Tax Credit. The latter would become refundable so that families with incomes too low to owe federal taxes could benefit. At the same time, the reimbursement rate for lower-income families would increase.

In the second bucket, we have recommendations that would ensure children’s basic needs are met. These are mostly changes in major safety net programs. And all but one — treatment of child support payments — would lift more children out of poverty than any of the work-related recommendations.

The most effective of all addresses housing costs. CDF proposes a large expansion of the shrunken federal Housing Choice voucher program.

Vouchers would become available for all households with children that have incomes below 150% of the poverty line and that pay — or would have to pay — at least half their income for rent at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s fair market rate. This recommendation alone would cut the child poverty rate by 20.8%.

Next down on the impact scale is a recommendation based on one the Food Research and Action Center has made for some years.

It would change the basis for determining SNAP (food stamp) benefits from the Thrifty Food Plan, which is generally used for no other purpose, to the Low-Cost Food Plan, which, FRAC says, is “generally in line with what low- and moderate-income families report they have to spend on food.”

We’d not only have fewer poorly-fed — or even underfed — children. We’d have 11.6% fewer in poverty. No benefits boost, however, for people who’ve got no children living with them.

How We Could Pay for the Proposals

First off, it’s worth noting that we’re already paying for child poverty — roughly $500 billion a year, according to an estimate a team of economists produced some years ago.

The proposals themselves would cost an estimated $77.2 billion a year. This is not only far less. It’s a tiny fraction — about 2% — of what the federal government spends.

CDF nevertheless lists five trade-offs, i.e., policy and spending changes that would free up funds to cover the costs of its proposals.

Like the recommendations, the trade-offs fall into two buckets. In one bucket, we have tax loopholes Congress could close, plus an income tax rate for capital gains and dividends equal to the rate imposed on wages.

In the other bucket, we have cuts in egregiously large and arguably wasteful Pentagon spending. Congress could, for example, give up on the F-35 fighter plane, which still can’t fly. This would free up $162.5 million per plane.

Total savings from this alone would fund all CDF’s proposals for 19 years, it says. Could be even longer, since the President’s proposed budget would fund more of these clunkers than the estimate CDF relied on.

On the other hand, the President’s budget does include some proposals similar to CDF’s, e.g., a subsidized jobs program, a larger maximum Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit for families with young children, more funding for housing vouchers, though far from enough to expand eligibility. General resemblances to some of the trade-offs in his tax code proposals too.

House Speaker John Boehner, among others, pronounced the budget DOA even before it got to Congress. Other sources think there might be some common ground. Far from enough — or in enough of the right places — to significantly reduce the child poverty rate. But it’s useful to know how we could do it — and pay for it too.

* Economist/blogger Jared Bernstein, who uses the report to poke Republican Presidential hopefuls, provides a table that identifies each recommendations, its impact of child poverty and the net new cost.

 


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.


More High-Poverty Neighborhoods, More Poor People Stuck in Them

December 18, 2014

Here in the District of Columbia we’ve got rumblings and grumblings about gentrification. Young strivers (mostly white) choosing to live in the city. Driving up housing costs in formerly affordable, if often rundown neighborhoods. And so driving out low-income families. Saddling the remainder with heavy rent burdens.

Gentrification — and the related debate over the pluses and minuses — are hardly unique to the District. We read about skyrocketing rents and displaced minorities in New York City, Seattle, San Francisco and other urban centers.

But a new report tells us that gentrification, though real is rare — at least, in the 51 major metro areas it covers. We should be much more concerned, it says, about high-poverty neighborhoods, i.e., those where at least 30% of the residents are officially poor.

We’ve got more of these neighborhoods now for two reasons. The first, which speaks to gentrification, is that most neighborhoods that were high-poverty in 1970 still were forty years later. The second is that well over 1,200 more neighborhoods became high-poverty during this period.

A relatively small percent of urban poor people live in high-poverty neighborhoods — roughly 4 million of the 46.2 million people in poverty in 2010. But that’s twice as many as in 1970.

Looked at another way, the percent of urban poor people living in high-poverty neighborhoods increased from 28% to nearly 39%. In other words, we have not only more high-poverty neighborhoods, but more poor people in them.

I recently heard a presentation by a mother who lives in one of the District’s public housing complexes. She objected strenuously to plans that would convert what’s surely a high-poverty neighborhood into a mixed-income community — foreseeing, it seems, that she and her fellow public housing dwellers would be dispersed.

“Deconcentration offends me,” she said. It means “I’ll be better if I live next to you,” referring to her mostly middle-class audience. This is surely a perspective worth considering.

Yet we’ve research indicating that residents of high-poverty neighborhoods are worse off specifically because that’s where they live.

For example, our public housing resident understandably wants ready access to good schools and healthful, affordable food. Well, supermarket chains generally don’t open stores in high-poverty neighborhoods, for obvious economic reasons.

Schools in high-poverty neighborhoods are frequently underfunded. And it’s not only money they lack. They tend to have less-qualified teachers and principals, in part because they’re challenging places to work. So teachers who don’t quit, as many do, will often transfer when they can.

Sociologist William Julius Wilson has long argued that lost job opportunities in the city helped explain a host of problems in high-poverty, predominantly black urban neighborhoods — more crime, deteriorating housing, failing schools, breakdowns in family and other social structures, etc.

These lead to more concentrated poverty because people who can flee to better, safer neighborhoods. So there are fewer local retail businesses because residents don’t have the income to support them. Nor can potential risk-takers get financing. And so there are fewer nearby job opportunities — and fewer working neighbors to serve as role models, mentors and networks into the labor market.

In short, as one of the authors of the high-poverty neighborhood study says, “Place plays a significant role in shaping individual economic opportunity.”

We see the results in several studies conducted for the Pew Charitable Trusts. One found that children raised in high-poverty neighborhoods were less likely to move up the income scale as adults — and considerably more likely to move down if they hadn’t been at the bottom to begin with.

Another found lower rates of economic mobility in metro areas where neighborhoods were highly segregated into pockets of wealth and poverty. These include the District and nearby suburbs, which had a higher economic segregation score than all but two of the other metro areas assessed.

The Urban Institute’s Marjorie Turner reminds us that “neighborhoods of concentrated poverty aren’t the products of ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ housing market operations.” Nor, as she and a colleague earlier wrote in reference to the Washington metro region, do they “reflect the ‘choices’ of poor families about where to live.

Public policies created them — legal segregation, then permitted race discrimination and decisions about where to locate public housing. All but the first are generally true in all the urban areas with high-poverty neighborhoods.

Now, highly-concentrated poverty isn’t only an urban problem. Nor are blacks the only people affected, though much of the research has focused on them. We find extraordinarily high poverty rates on Native American reservations, for example, and in predominantly-white hill towns of Appalachia.

We increasingly find it in suburbs, as we know (if we didn’t before) because the cop shot the kid in Ferguson — a case study in its own right of the legacy of segregation, persistent race discrimination and a failed public housing policy.

There’s obviously no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem — not even for high-poverty urban neighborhoods like those clustered “east of the river” in D.C.

Turner (and others) recommend multi-part, multi-partner “place conscious” strategies. These connect families to opportunities outside their neighborhoods, while at the same both expanding opportunities within their neighborhoods and helping those who want to move to higher-opportunity neighborhoods to do so.

“A big structural challenge,” she acknowledges. But it sounds like the right approach to me. And I think the mom in public housing would like it too.

 


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