What the new poverty data say about an old problem

What they said...

I’ve spent the last few weeks buried in the U.S. Census Bureau’s new website, trying not to be paralyzed by the fact that the poverty statistics represent, of course, actual people who are poor.

A lot of them.

There isn’t anything truly surprising in the new data; poverty has gotten worse–dramatically so, in some cases–with people of color and children, particularly those in single female-headed households, especially vulnerable.

So, for me, reviewing these figures is not so much about gaining new insights, but about seizing an opportunity to focus our attention, once more, where it belongs–on how terribly our public policies are failing to effectively combat the scourge of poverty.

Because we’re failing not in explicable or unpredictable ways; we’re failing with tragic routine, reflecting much more a failing of political will than of technical ability.

And our failure is increasingly dangerous, as the numbers of people in poverty grow, and as we learn more about the lifelong effects of being poor.

Here’s what we know about poverty in my state in 2011. Now, what should we do about it?

  • Between 2009 and 2010, 20,000 more Kansans were added to the poverty ranks, and the percentage of those living in poverty rose to 14.3%. Kansans of color were disproportionately represented among the poor, with 28.6% of African Americans, 29.7% of American Indians, and 25.4% of Latinos living below the official poverty line.
  • Children are especially suffering in the current economic picture; nationally, 22% of children were in poverty in 2010. In Kansas, an alarming 23.7% of children under age 18 were poor in 2010, up from 18% in 2009 , a devastating decline in the fortunes of our state’s youngest and most vulnerable.
  • The poverty rate “gap”, then, between older adults (65+) and children has grown. In 2010, only 7.7% of Kansas seniors were poor. This is a triumph of the social policy innovation we know now as Social Security retirement; without Social Security, the percentage of Kansas seniors living in poverty would rise to more than 40%.
  • Work is no longer a guaranteed path to economic security. In 2010, real median household income in Kansas was $46,229, almost 5% lower than Kansas’ 2007, pre-recession median ($48,497). 27.8% of single female-headed households with children under age 18 had a householder who worked and yet, still, the family fell into poverty . In 12% of cases, these mothers were working year-round, full-time without being able to pull their families from poverty status, testament to the strains of low-wage labor and the difficult economics facing single parents raising children, particularly when they also experience the wage discrimination that still plagues female employment.
  • Our current poverty measure’s woeful inadequacy makes these statistics all the more alarming; if we used a more realistic threshold (such as those used to determine eligibility for means-tested programs–usually more like 125% of poverty), for example, more than 45% of single female headed-households would have been poor in Kansas in 2010. Similarly, if we accurately defined and measured unemployment (as in, people who wish they were working but aren’t, instead of only those not so discouraged that they haven’t given up or involuntarily taken a part-time job instead), our unemployment rate would hover around 12%–frighteningly high.
  • Appallingly, poverty in Kansas seems to be increasingly more rapidly than in other parts of the country, despite a job market that, in some ways, has not been ravaged as severely as that of other regions. While our overall poverty rate was slightly lower than the national figure, Kansas saw higher rates of child poverty and poverty in single female-headed households in 2010, and higher rates of growth between 2009-2010 in several categories.

We shouldn’t need new statistics to remind us that poverty is a dire and growing threat to community and individual well-being. We don’t need statistics to connect the dots about those we see living in homelessness, or our own coworkers’ concerns about their mortgage payments, or, even, our own fears about the precarious nature of our employment.

But we can, and, indeed, we must, use the release of these new data on poverty and its shadow–the economic insecurity that is nearly ubiquitous in today’s economy–to dedicate ourselves anew to developing public policy structures and investments that harness our considerable powers to improve people’s lives, individually and in the aggregate.

Because when the next set of poverty data is released, I want some surprises.

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