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Poverty Data: No Significant Difference! -- Well, Not Statistically

Sep 19, 2013 | By Sr. Marge Clark

There is no statistically significant difference in the Census Bureau Poverty Data, comparing 2012 to 2011. However, looking within the statistics, pictures of people begin to emerge.

300,000 more of our elderly community members are living in poverty than they were just one year ago!  Over 3.4 million elderly rely on SNAP (food Stamps), which some members of Congress want to cut, drastically. This would remove millions of people from receiving SNAP. Millions of seniors also rely on “Meals on Wheels” for their only hot meals. Due to sequestration, these meals are being lost or frequency reduced for hundreds of thousands. How many of these would be in the 300,000 who have moved into poverty in 2012? These same 300,000 elderly are facing proposed cuts to Social Security, by application of a new formula for payments (Chained-CPI), and are at risk of higher prescription out-of-pocket costs if the ACA loses funding.

The overall poverty rate for children (under age 18) is higher than for the general population (21.3 percent, 15.4 million) and did not change, statistically. A look at subgroups within this data shows alarming numbers of children growing up in poverty.  47.2 percent of children in a female household were in poverty. This doubling of children in poverty relates directly to the ratio of women’s salaries to those of their male counterparts at 77%. It is even more severe for the youngest of children.  56 percent of children under the age of six is being raised in a family lacking finances to provide sufficient resources for strong growth and development .

Attention is often given to female-headed households. However, these data reveal an increasing number of male heads of household fell below the poverty level in 2012 (16.1% to 16.4%). This is likely an effect of the “jobless recession” taking a toll on those at the low end of the income scale. Women benefitted a bit more than men in the recovery of jobs.

Other “non-significant” changes include the downward trajectories of income for people living in the South, and those living outside metropolitan areas.  Other research has commented on the shift of poverty clusters from urban areas to suburban, where there is less access to services.

A tragic reality is that 6.6 percent of the people in our communities are struggling to survive on less than fifty percent of the poverty threshold. That is 20.4 million of us! Almost half of all those living below the poverty level actually live below half of that. For a family of four, that means living a year on $11,700. How can we, as a nation, abide this?

No significant change in the overall poverty picture from 2011 to 2012! A comparison between 2012 and 2007 (just prior to the recession) shows an overall increase in poverty of 2.5 percent. A look at a span of years, particularly related to economic events may be a more significant view.

Alternative Measure of Poverty

It is disconcerting to realize how many MORE members of our communities would be in poverty, were they not supported by programs being cut by our legislators through sequestration or through appropriations such as to the Agriculture Committee. The census bureau is working with an alternative measure of poverty, which highlights the difference made by government programs. Millions of people are kept above the poverty threshold due to SNAP, Unemployment Insurance benefits and housing vouchers.

This week the House of Representatives plans to vote on cutting $40 billion from the SNAP program, over 10 years. This will reduce the amount a family receives – or will eliminate millions from any support. Not only does it cut food stamps, but it also cuts school meal programs. So children who qualify to nutrition assistance will lose both at home and at school!

Far more than half of those unemployed are in the “long-term” unemployed category – many already beyond the time of receiving assistance. In recent years, the length of benefits has been cut both by the federal government and by states. As we look at the unemployment numbers released each month by the labor department, we need to remember that the number receiving benefits is a decreasing percentage of those without and seeking work. The House-passed budget and Continuing Resolution plans would further chop away at support for those unable to find work.

Numbers of housing vouchers continue to decline. In many states, as a voucher is turned in it is not re-issued. Wait-lists for vouchers continue to grow.

There are alternatives

These trends will lead to more people living in poverty, if they are not reversed. Is this the nation we want to be? There are alternatives! The Senate has proposed a budget which would eliminate sequestration for all discretionary spending. They would do this by making carefully thought out cuts in spending – and by increasing revenue. There are both individuals and corporations who are not accepting their fair share of our economic burdens. This can be remedied.

Sister Marge works as a lobbyist on domestic human needs at NETWORK. A member of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM), she has over thirty years experience in higher education, teaching teachers. This follows some years in elementary school teaching. She is also actively engaged in work to close the School of the Americas and in her Congregation’s work with the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility.