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.

 

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Rethinking Poverty in America

January 6, 2014

According to the official poverty measure, being poor means having very little cash income — for a parent with two children, less than $18,499, according to the latest Census Bureau thresholds.

For the Supplemental Poverty Measure, being poor means not having enough cash income and certain near-cash benefits like refundable tax credits and food stamps to pay for everyday basic needs, plus some other necessary expenses, e.g., medical out-of-pockets.

Those of a liberal persuasion, including yours truly, often cite analyses in the annual SPM reports as evidence that our anti-poverty programs work.

A recently-published study by some Columbia University professors was heralded because, by using a slightly modified SPM, they were able to show that major safety net programs reduced the poverty rate by 40% between 1967, shortly after the War on Poverty was launched, and 2012.

This isn’t going to make one whit of difference to the right-wingers who are fond of recycling former President Reagan’s (in)famous “We fought a war on poverty, and poverty won.”

On the other hand, we do have 16% of the population — 49.7 million people — in poverty, according to the SPM. And this isn’t because we gave up on the anti-poverty enterprise, though surely “welfare reform,” harsh anti-drug laws and diverse other policies help explain it.

Professor Mark Rank at Washington University in St. Louis argues that economist John Galbraith put his finger on the problem 30 years ago, when he said we were attacking poverty from the wrong end.

Instead of beginning with root causes, he says, we begin with preferred remedies and tailor our view of the causes to fit.

More generally, we begin with a fondness for our free enterprise system and the American Dream, which promises a reasonably comfortable lifestyle to anyone who works hard and plays by the rules.

Working backwards, we locate both the causes and solutions to poverty in the individual. For conservatives, this means finding character flaws, e.g., a propensity to laziness, imprudent choices like having children out of wedlock, indulging in alcohol and/or drugs.

So safety net programs are badly structured because … well, because they provide a safety net. So there are no bad consequences for bad behaviors. Indeed, some have long argued that the programs reward bad behaviors.

Liberals focus more on inadequacies that disadvantage individuals in the labor market — lack of education, training and thus of in-demand skills. So we have a variety of programs to level the playing field — for those who’ll exercise personal responsibility.

In either case, Rank says, “the poor are by and large at fault for their poverty,” though we make an exception for those unable to work for reasons that have nothing to do with their behavior.

And we as a society feel limited responsibilities for poor people because it’s up to them to take advantage of such opportunities as we offer. We tinker with the incentives and disincentives. We don’t doubt what Rank, like a true academic, calls the “paradigm” that underpins the remedies.

He calls for a new paradigm, based on “realities,” rather than “the myths of America.” It’s got five components — none of which, he acknowledges, is altogether new.

The first seems to me in some ways the most important because it speaks directly to the role of public policies. We need to recognize, Rank says, that poverty in America is largely the result of “structural failings.”

The most obvious of these is that there simply aren’t enough decent-paying jobs for the number of workers who need them. Indeed, there aren’t enough jobs, period. And there haven’t been even when the economy was booming along, according to research Rank cites.

At the same time, our social safety net is “extremely weak.” By way of contrast, we’re asked to consider the range and reach of income supports and publicly-funded insurance programs that are common in Europe, e.g., child or family allowances, expansive child care, universal health coverage.

Put the two together and you’ve got widespread deprivation — Rank’s preferred concept of poverty (and mine).

He asks us to think of a game of musical chairs. As you know, there are always fewer chairs than players. Those most likely not to get a seat have some disadvantage. In the game itself, that tends to be pushiness, as I unhappily recall.

In the economy, it’s lack of education and/or marketable skills. We focus on these, Rank says, when we should ask “why the game produces losers to begin with.” In other words, why aren’t there enough “viable economic opportunities and social supports” for everyone?

Rank is hardly the only one to call for a refocused approach to poverty in this country. Many progressives have, in various ways, urged us fellow travelers to shift our attention to structural economic reforms.

They’re pushing back against what Rortybomb blogger Mike Konczal refers to as “pity-charity liberal capitalism” — a doubling-down on “welfare” at the expense of policies that would empower workers, both in the workplace and the in political sphere.

At the same time, we do need those safety net and social insurance programs. They’re under such heavy attacks from the right these days that we’re forced into a defensive posture.

We should acknowledge, however, that the challenge ahead is not only to preserve what works, but  change what doesn’t — or does, but not as well as it should, including our economy.

I expect we’ll be hearing a lot about this in the days to come because we’re about to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty.