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.


Tough to Get By in High-Cost Communities Like DC, Updated Budget Calculator Shows

July 12, 2013

The Economic Policy Institute has issued an updated and expanded version of its family budget calculator — the first since 2008.

This should be welcome news to both advocates for the interests of low and moderate-income Americans and analysts working on issues like an alternative to our over-simple official poverty measure.

The calculator allows us to produce current budgets for six family types — one or two parents, with at least one and as many as three children — and for each, basic living costs in 615 communities.

Basic living costs include:

  • Housing (rent, plus basic utilities for a modestly-priced apartment big enough for the family).
  • Food, based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s second cheapest food plan.
  • Transportation (costs of owning and operating a car for essential travel).
  • Health care (premiums for employer-sponsored health insurance, plus out-of-pocket costs).
  • Other necessary expenses, e.g., clothing, personal care items, household supplies.
  • Taxes (income and payroll).

Some items are quite consistent across jurisdictions — food, for example, and transportation. Others, as you might imagine, vary widely.

But in every single jurisdiction and for every family type, the costs of what it takes “to get by” are well over the federal poverty line.

Also more than a full-time, year round minimum wage worker can earn — even in jurisdictions that have established minimum wages considerably higher than the federal.

So what can we learn about the District of Columbia? Well, it’s one of the costliest places in the country to live — and for families with one child the costliest of all.

Chalk this up to the highest market-rate child care cost of any jurisdiction — $1,318 a month for a preschooler. (EPI assumes that families with more children will be paying for only after-school care for the rest.)

Taking a closer look at your conventional two-parent, two-child family, we see that sustaining a modest standard of living in D.C. would require $88,615 a year. Only similar families in New York City and several nearby communities need more.

The District’s family budget, as EPI calculates it, is well over three and a half times the federal poverty line for a four-person household.

If both the parents worked full-time, year round at the local minimum wage, they would be shy about $53,000.

This assumes, as we really shouldn’t, that they’re entitled to some paid leave — or never, for any reason, have to take any time of from work.

Also that they and their kids have only minimal health care costs because they’re enrolled in Medicaid.

And — big assumption here — that the family has found a two-bedroom apartment at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s fair market rent — $1,412 a month.

Not in my backyard, as they say. Nor necessarily a representative modest rent in the District as a whole, since the FMR that EPI was constrained to use represents a rate calculated for the greater Washington metro area.

What EPI says for communities nationwide is obviously true for the District. Many parents won’t earn enough to meet their families basic needs.

Work supports like the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, child care and transportation subsidies can help.

So can other public benefits like SNAP (the food stamp program), subsidized housing and Medicaid — or for some slightly better-off families, the soon-to-be-available subsidies for private health insurance plans.

But even with these, it’s got to be awfully tough for a whole lot of families “to get by” in high-cost communities like the District.

And virtually all the work supports and other benefits I’ve mentioned are under some form of threat on Capitol Hill.

I’d like to think that the EPI budget calculator, with its community-specific data, would give pause to policymakers who are busy about cutting programs their less well-off constituents need to live free from economic hardship.

If wishes were horses …

DC Council Committee Questions TANF Budget Proposal

April 2, 2009

Bread for the City has an interesting blog posting on the recent City Council Human Services Committee hearing on the proposed Fiscal Year 2010 budget for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

As the Bread posting indicates, Councilmember Wells expressed concern that the Fenty administration isn’t proposing an increase in TANF cash assistance benefits. The current maximum benefit for a family of three is just $428 per month–the same as it was two years ago. Wells seems to think it’s time for an increase, since the Council “proposed … to hold off on,” i.e., eliminated, the increase it approved for this fiscal year.

However, Clarence Carter, the Director of the Department of Human Services, says that his agency prefers to focus on “growing [families’] capacity beyond their need”–in other words, job-related training, plus “connections” to other “goods and services.”

Wells doesn’t think this is a substitute for an increase, especially now, when jobs are so scarce. So perhaps there’s hope for struggling TANF families.

The Fair Budget Coalition has recommended a $2.7 million increase for the TANF program. This would fund a very modest (Carter calls it “meager”) increase in cash benefits–an average of $19 per month for a family of three. Both Wells and the FBC members who testified referred to it as a “cost of living increase.”

And I guess it is in a sense. The cost of living has gone up and so would the benefit. But let’s be clear about one thing. The recommended increase wouldn’t give TANF participants as much purchasing power as they had last year.

Look at the cost of living adjustment for Social Security benefits. This COLA reflects the past year’s average quarterly increase in the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers–the same index that a number of states use to adjust their minimum wage rates for inflation. For calendar year 2009, which spans part of the District’s Fiscal Year 2010, the COLA is 5.8%.

If the FBC recommendation is adopted, the TANF benefit for the family of three will increase, on average, by 4.3%. So the family would still lose purchasing power, though less than under the Mayor’s proposal.

To understand what’s at stake here, we need to consider that, even with the increase, a family of three that depends solely on TANF for cash income will be at just 35.5% of the federal poverty level. And that is very poor indeed.

In fact, figures in the FBC FY 2010 budget report indicate that the extra $19 would give the family about 10.5% of what it needs for the basic costs of living in D.C.

Growing capacity is a fine thing. But how can a person focus on developing job-related capacities and/or looking for a job when so much time and energy must be spent on the challenges of day-to-day survival. I’d like to see Mr. Carter try it.