New Coalition Aims To Focus DC Elections On Poverty

March 29, 2010

My government relations, a.k.a. lobbyist, friends have a favorite saying: “More legislative victories are won on election day than in an entire legislative session.” In other words, you need to focus resources on who will make the decisions on the issues you care about.

Individual citizens and private-sector businesses can impact outcomes by donating to campaigns and/or volunteering their services. Nonprofit organizations can’t–not if they want to retain their tax-exempt status. Nor can they otherwise engage in activities to help elect or defeat any candidate for elective office.

But they can, if they’re careful, provide us with information that can help us decide whom to support. And they can shape the debate so that successful candidates take office with an awareness of the issues voters care most about and commitments that can, at the very least, serve as benchmarks.

Hence we now have yet another local coalition–Defeat Poverty DC. It defines itself as “a coalition of organizations and residents in the District of Columbia working to bring greater focus during the 2010 election season and beyond to the damaging effects of poverty on our entire city.”

The coalition is the brainchild of four foundations and some organizations with a long track record of advocacy and services on behalf of low-income D.C. residents. They’ve recruited other advocacy groups and service providers, plus some faith-based organizations, the DC Statehood Green Party, at least one local business and an unidentified number of individuals.

In the months ahead, the coalition will marshal its resources to inject a focus on poverty and measures to alleviate it into this year’s mayoral and DC Council elections campaigns.

Its focus is primarily on expanding economic opportunity to reduce both the District’s high poverty rate–now estimated at nearly 19% or maybe higher–and the large and growing gap between the haves and the have-nots in the city.

The coalition promises policy briefs, forums and other public and candidate education efforts. The thrust of all this is to get the candidates on record with their specific solutions. At the formal launch of the movement, we were told that we would be asking candidates what they intend to do, rather than advocating solutions.

But, in fact, Defeat Poverty DC has a hefty poverty-reduction agenda, based on three imperatives:

  • Make work possible through job placement, increased literacy and access to quality child care and reliable transportation, i.e., convenient, affordable subway and bus transit.
  • Make work pay by improving job training, ensuring access to better wages and benefits and lessening the tax burden on low-income families. The better wages are to come about through more and better training. Most of the benefits too, I guess, though the agenda calls out the need to extend unemployment insurance benefits and raise the rates.
  • Make basic needs affordable by bridging the gap between the high costs of living in D.C. and the incomes of working poor residents, including increased availability of nutritious food, health care and affordable housing.

None of this is new, of course. Nor should it be. We and our elected officials have known for a long time what could be done to significantly reduce poverty among D.C. residents and the hardships of those at the bottom of the income scale.

Yet here we are with probably the highest poverty rate in 14 years and forecasts for at least another year or two of high unemployment. The rising tide that will eventually come isn’t going to lift the boats of residents who were poor long before the recession began–at least, not unless we’ve got policies and programs that enable them to qualify for higher-skilled jobs and the resources they need to thrive.

I’d like to think that Defeat Poverty DC will succeed in reorienting our local government’s priorities. It’s taken a smart first step by asking Mayor Fenty and current Councilmembers about their actions and positions on defeating poverty. I expect we’ll see more of this in the days to come.

But, as we all know, candidates for elective office make all sorts of promises. We also know that we’ll be told that the budget has to be cut and that everyone has to share the pain. If past is prologue, some will share the pain more than others.

Still, it’s worth the effort to insist again that investments must be made to ensure long-term economic growth and decent living conditions throughout the city.

So I’ve joined the campaign. You can too just by clicking here and entering your e-mail address at the bottom of the web page.


New Census Bureau Numbers for Poor People In the U.S.

November 22, 2009

Awhile back, I led off a posting by asking how many poor people there are in the U.S. The answer was nobody knows because the official poverty measure is so flawed.

Back in 1995, the National Academy of Sciences produced recommendations for an alternative measure that would take account of actual living costs, geographic differences and the impacts of public benefits. Experts generally agree that such a measure would be a big improvement over what we’ve got.

The Census Bureau has issued alternative poverty estimates based on the NAS recommendations. So do we now know how many poor people there are in the U.S.? No. But we’ve got at least six sets of figures that generally point in the same direction.

All four detailed sets base living costs on the Consumer Expenditure Survey–a two-part program that collects information on what Americans buy and how much they pay.

Two of these sets adjust poverty thresholds for geographic differences. One also subtracts Medicaid out-of-pocket expenses from income. The other includes Medicaid out-of-pockets in the poverty thresholds.

Looking at the first set, what we find is that, in 2008:

  • There were 47.4 million poor people in the U.S., as compared to 39.8 million under the official poverty measure.
  • The poverty rate was 15.8%, rather than the official 13.2%.
  • The child poverty rate was 17.9%, rather than the official 19%. The drop here probably reflects the impacts of food stamps and other non-cash benefits.
  • The poverty rate among seniors wasn’t lower than for any other age group, as the official measure indicates, but higher–18.7%. Rising health care costs are probably the culprit here.
  • While the poverty rate for blacks was unchanged at 24.7%, poverty rates for all other race/ethnicity groups were higher than the official rates, topped by Hispanics at 29%.

The second set puts most of these figures higher.

  • Instead of 47.4 million poor people, we get 50.8 million–16.9% of the population.
  • The child poverty rate goes up to 19.8%, rather than down.
  • Poverty rates for all race/ethnicity groups go up, with the Hispanic rate reaching 31.8%.
  • However, the poverty rate for seniors goes down a bit, to 18.1%.

I wish I knew enough to know which set of figures gives us the more accurate picture.

What’s clear enough is that there were many more poor people in the country than the original Census report indicated–unless you accept the view that the Bureau’s NAS formula is seriously flawed. Here again, I wish I knew more, but the aggressively anti-government source makes me suspicious.

If the formula’s not so bad, then the Bureau’s poverty thresholds are too low. Using the NAS recommendations, the 2008 threshold for a family of two adults and two children would increase from $21,834 to $29,654.

Here’s where the need to know comes up against fiscal politics.

As I’ve written before, bills have again been introduced in the Congress to establish a new poverty measure based generally on the NAS recommendations. They would not replace the current measure as the standard for calculating federal benefits. But the alternative measure would almost certainly show that many poor people are denied benefits because they don’t fall below the official poverty line–or whatever multiplier is used for the program.

Are members of Congress ready to deal with that? What about the Obama administration, which could adopt the alternative measure on its own?

The Census Bureau said it expedited release of the NAS-based poverty estimates because both wanted to see a broader range of numbers. Now they’ve got them. Let’s see what they do.

Are Poor Parents Bad Parents?

November 15, 2009

Surely the vast majority of poor parents do the best they can for their children. Still, a disproportionate number of them wind up losing their children to child welfare agencies.

One reason seems to be that more child abuse and neglect actually occur in poor families. According to the latest U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect, children in families with incomes below $15,000 a year were 14 times more likely to be harmed by some form of abuse and 44 times more likely to be endangered by physical neglect than children in families with annual incomes of at least $30,000.

Data like these have led the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform to call the view that child mistreatment cuts across class lines a myth. After all, it says, child abuse is linked to stress, and poor families tend to be under more stress than rich families.

But, as NCCPR goes on to argue, many child protection laws virtually define poverty as neglect. In Illinois, for example, it’s failure to provide “care necessary for [a child’s] well-being.” Here in the District of Columbia, negligent treatment is “failure to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, or medical care.”

The D.C. law goes on to make an exemption for deprivation due to lack of financial means. But there are reasons to believe this is honored more in the breach than in the observance. Consider, for example, that 34 children were put into foster care last year because of “inadequate housing.”

Perhaps other reasons were linked to poverty as well. More than half the 2008 foster care placements the Child and Family Services Agency reports were because of “neglect (reported/alleged).” There’s a lot of room here for judgments based on how well children fare when their families are poor.

Now we all know what happens when child welfare agencies leave children in homes where they shouldn’t be. But there’s also a lot of evidence that children are taken away from their parents when other options would be better for them.

What if the parents who lost their children due to “inadequate housing” had received housing vouchers or other assistance to improve their living conditions? We’ll never know.

What we do know is that a number of studies indicate that children are seriously damaged by foster care placements. For example, a large study of young adults who’d been in foster care found that they had twice the rate of post-traumatic stress disorder as Iraq war veterans. A third of them reported some form of maltreatment by an adult in the foster care home. Only 20% of them could be said to be “doing well.”

And then there are the horrible cases of children who died from abuse or neglect in foster care homes.

So when we see an exponential increase in foster care placements, as we have in D.C., we shouldn’t conclude that the child welfare system is working. We should try to find out more about the cases. Were the children being abused or willfully neglected? Or was the “neglect (reported/alleged)” something that could have been readily addressed by safety net programs or other services?

Or do a fair number of the placements reflect misjudgments on the part of the caseworkers? Professor Matthew Fraidin at the University of the District of Columbia Law School recently testified that 60% of the cases handled by his students resulted in the children’s being returned to their homes because, when confronted, CFSA agreed they weren’t being abused or neglected.

Was any racial prejudice involved? According to the latest CFSA assessment by the Center for the Study of Social Policy, as of January 2009, 98% of the children in out-of-home placements whose race was known were black. That’s about a third more than the percent of D.C. children who are black. Seems like an awfully big point spread to me. And here again we’ve got studies that make the question worth asking.

Unfortunately, neither we nor interested experts can get a good fix on whether children are being taken away from their parents because of their poverty and/or race. Here in D.C., as in most states, child welfare proceedings and records are closed to everyone not directly involved in the case.

What would happen if we let some sunshine in?

NOTE: I’m deeply indebted to Professor Fraidin for calling my attention to this issue and taking the time to educate me. The sources reflected here came largely from him. The analysis and errors, if any, are my own.

Let’s Not Forget Poor Rural Children

October 28, 2009

A new report from the Casey Foundation aims to widen our vision of child poverty in America. It’s called The Forgotten Fifth because one in five poor children lives in a rural community. Yet their plight is commonly overlooked by both policymakers and the general public.

That wasn’t always the case, the authors say. But, in recent years, the image of child poverty has become “an overwhelmingly urban one,” to the detriment of poor families in small, out-of-the way communities.

Here’s a sample of the wealth of facts and figures the authors bring to bear on this problem.

First off, the child poverty rate is higher in rural than in urban areas, and a higher percentage of rural children are in deep poverty, i.e. below 50% of the federal poverty threshold. As of 2007, all but one of the 51 one counties with the highest child poverty rates were rural.

Thirteen states–all in the South, lower Midwest or Southwest–have rural child poverty rates over 25%. Only 10 states that have non-metropolitan areas have rural child poverty rates under 15%.

In various respects, poor rural children suffer greater disadvantages than their urban counterparts.

  • Child poverty rates are highest in counties most remote from an urban area, so access to support services is more limited.
  • Rural children are exposed to all the adverse impacts of poverty for longer periods because poor rural families tend to stay poor longer than poor urban families.
  • States with the highest percentages of rural poor children provide lower TANF benefits and are less likely to have their own Earned Income Tax Credit than states with the lowest percentages.
  • States with the largest numbers of rural children spend considerably less per child than states with the fewest.

The Casey authors say it would cost $10 billion to lift all rural children out of poverty. Can we afford this?

Consider first the human costs of doing nothing more than we’re doing now. According to a UNICEF assessment of child well-being, children who grow up in poverty are more vulnerable to a host of problems, including poor health, learning and behavioral difficulties, academic under-achievement, early pregnancy and ultimately lower skills and aspirations, low pay and unemployment. Over the years, we could save countless children from such life-long disadvantages.

And then there’s the dollar cost. In 2007, a Center for American Progress task force estimated that persistent child poverty costs our country$500 billion a year.

Looked at this way, how can we afford not to ramp up our anti-poverty efforts? How afford not to ensure that they do a better job of addressing the particular needs of poor rural families?

DC Public School Test Scores Better, But Still Dismal For Disadvantaged Kids

October 19, 2009

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof calls education reform “the central front in the war on poverty, the civil rights issue of our time.” The poverty part reflects the tried-and-true view that a good education will do more to lift a person out of poverty than safety net programs. The civil rights part refers to our separate and unequal schools.

From that perspective, let’s take a look at the recently-reported improvement in the math scores of D.C. public school students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests. These scores are key indicators because NAEP is an impartial body, and its tests are uniform nationwide and consistent over time.

First, the good news:

  • Overall average scores for both fourth and eighth graders increased–up 5 points and 6 points respectively since 2007.
  • Longer-term increases were much greater–up 26 points for fourth graders and 19 points for eighth graders since 1992 (the earliest date reported for both grade levels).
  • For the first time since 1992, more than 50% of D.C. fourth graders scored at or above basic level, i.e., demonstrated “partial mastery of the prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work” at grade level.

Now the rest:

  • Both fourth and eighth grade scores were lowest in the nation. They were 20 points below the national average for fourth graders and 28 points below the national average for eighth graders.
  • Forty-four percent of fourth graders and 60% of eighth graders scored below basic level, as compared to 19% of fourth graders and 29% of eighth graders nationwide.

What these overall figures don’t show are the continuing very large race/ethnicity gaps. At the fourth grade level (the only one for which comparative figures are available):

  • Ninety-nine percent of white students scored at or above basic level, while only 50% of black students and 70% of Hispanic students did.
  • Eighty-one percent of white students scored at proficiency level or above, as compared to 9% of black students and 18% of Hispanic students.
  • Black students scored, on average, 57 points lower than white students–a gain of just 5 points since 1992.
  • Hispanic students narrowed the gap by 13 points, but their average score was still 43 points lower than the average white student score.

So what does all this have to do with poverty? Well, consider that:

  • Fourth graders who were eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches, i.e. at or below 185% of the federal poverty line, averaged 31 points lower than other fourth graders.
  • Only 48% of them scored at or above basic level, as compared to 81% of fourth graders from higher-income families.
  • For eighth graders, the score gap was 24 points, and only 34% of those eligible for free or reduced-price lunches score at or above basic level.
  • Now look at the 2008 poverty rates–three and half times greater for blacks and two and half times greater for Hispanics than for non-Hispanic whites.

So it looks as if the large, racially-linked income gap in the District is playing itself out in students’ mastery of one of the major skill sets decent-paying jobs require.

Some of this probably has to do with difference in the quality of education that children in high-income and low-income neighborhoods receive. But part of it probably also has to do with impacts of poverty itself–instability, food insecurity, ill-health, over-stressed and/or absent parents, etc.

Schools can’t do anything about parental income. But D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s got work cut out for her to ensure that another generation of disadvantaged children aren’t “cemented into an underclass” by schools that leave so many children so far behind.

Traditional Values Get New Packaging

October 15, 2009

The launch issue of National Affairs includes a lengthy and thought-provoking article by Ron Haskins, co-director of the Brooking Institution’s Center on Children and Families.

Basically, Haskins seeks to shift the debate on anti-poverty policies from income inequality to upward mobility. After all, he says, the American dream isn’t economic equality. It’s the chance to get ahead.

The first part of the article marshals economic studies to show that income inequality in the U.S. isn’t really as great as it’s commonly said to be–or increasing as much as alleged.

But this effort to correct the inequality story is just a preamble to the heart of the argument. Haskins dives into that with an account of what he and Brookings colleagues found when they analyzed long-term data on economic mobility together with data on employment, family composition, education and other personal characteristics.

These, he says, are what really matter because the reasons people are poor “have to do not only with economics but also with culture, history, and especially individual behavior and personal choices.”

Looking at the impacts of getting a four-year college degree, he concludes that mobility is “alive and well in America”–though not what it could be, given what we see in other industrialized countries, or what it should be, given the “enormous” investments in anti-poverty programs.

What we need, he says, is more public policies, like student financial aid, that support personal effort. But that’s only part of the agenda. Haskins and his colleagues recommend:

  • Expanding the “serious” work requirements and the work supports in TANF to include beneficiaries of the food stamp program and subsidized housing–this because they view welfare reform as a great success.
  • Expanding programs that focus on the early growth and development of poor children.
  • Promoting marriage and two-parent families because “the growth of female-headed families is like a giant poverty-generating machine.”

Much of this makes me very uncomfortable. No doubt that our traditional cultural values–education, hard work, marriage and responsible child-rearing–are correlated to prosperity. No doubt that personal responsibility–or lack of same–helps determine what income bracket we’re in. And no doubt whatever that expanding supports for low-wage workers and helping poor children get a good start in life are important and worthwhile.

But my sense is that Haskins’s agenda is about half a step away from blaming poor people for their situation–and maybe not even half a step away from a very rigid and conservative view of what a family should be.

And is economic mobility–the chance to move up (and down) the income scale–really the be all and the end all anyway? My dream for America is different.

New Census Poverty Figures Show Little Change

September 29, 2009

The Census Bureau has just released its 2008 figures on poverty. By and large, they show little change from 2007, either for the nation as a whole or for the District of Columbia.

For the nation as a whole:

  • The overall poverty rate increased to 13.2%–up by 0.2% from 2007.
  • The percent of children in poverty increased to 18.2%–here too, up by 0.2%.
  • The poverty rates for Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites increased by 0.6% and 0.3% respectively, while the poverty rate for blacks declined by 0.6%.
  • However, race/ethnicity gaps remain significant, with 12% more Hispanics and 14.8% more blacks than whites below the poverty threshold.

Poverty rates in the District were higher and one-year increases greater than for the nation as a whole.

  • The poverty rate for all D.C. residents was 17.2%–up by 0.8% from 2007.
  • The percent of children in poverty was 25.9%–up by 3.2%.
  • As for the nation as a whole, Hispanics were the hardest hit by the onset of the recession. Their poverty rate increased by 6.5%.
  • The poverty rate for blacks increased by 0.9%, while the rate from non-Hispanic whites dropped by 0.7%.

The new figures show that poverty in the District is still heavily concentrated among racial and ethnic minorities.

  • The percent of non-Hispanic whites below the poverty threshold was 6.7%, with 4.3% of them in deep poverty, i.e., below 50% of the threshold.
  • For blacks, the poverty rate was three-and-a-half times greater–23.6%. And the deep poverty rate was three times greater–13.5%.
  • For Hispanics, the poverty rate was 17.6%–more than two-and-a-half times greater than the rate for non-Hispanic whites. Though the deep poverty rate was also higher, the gap was less dramatic–3.3% greater.

So what are we to make of all this? Obviously, the District still has what the DC Fiscal Policy Institute has called two economies, with large disparities between whites and racial and ethnic minorities.

As my partner Matt just wrote, these apparently are linked to levels of education. In 2008, 32.5% of D.C. residents below the poverty threshold had less than a high school diploma and an additional 20.1% no more than a diploma or GED, as compared to just 4.6% of those in poverty with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

But there could be other factors at work here as well. As a new report by the Center for American Progress shows, unemployment rates for blacks and Hispanics have been persistently higher than the rate for whites, even when one controls for gender, age and education.

So we need to look at what CAP calls “labor market segmentation” and possible discrimination, as well as needs for more robust, inclusive training programs and significant improvements in education, from early childhood through high school and beyond.

Bottom line is that policymakers have to do more than promote economic recovery. Blacks and Hispanics will still be disproportionately at the bottom of the income scale unless policies and programs are tailored to address the disparities.

And even the best of these won’t work overnight, so there’s a need to mend our frayed safety nets too.