Sunday, October 25, 2009

Working hard isn't enough for some living in poverty

Previously published in theTerre Haute Tribune Star, 10/25/09

If the United States contained only 100 people, how many would be living in poverty? According to a September 2009 US Census publication, “Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2008, based on data collected in March 2009 (Current Population Survey), 13.2 individuals would be living in poverty. After living in Indiana and Vigo County for over 20 years, one thing I’ve learned is how proud we are to be different than other places. And certainly Vigo County is different when it comes to poverty.

According to the most recent data available on poverty in Vigo County (2007), 15.4 individuals out of 100 were living in poverty. Keep in mind the Vigo County data is taken prior to the financial meltdown in 2008. The US rate then was 12.5 percent.

Figure 1 shows the percent of persons living at or below the poverty line in 2007 for Vigo County and its border counties. True to Vigo County exceptionalism, we stand out, with the highest poverty rate in the area. Is there any credible evidence that as the US’ poverty rate climbs, that Vigo’s is heading down? Already I can hear those who don’t want to confront the facts; college students are not counted in the census unless they make Vigo County their residence, otherwise they are counted as part of their parents’ household and prisoners are not counted in poverty statistics.

While there is ample data on poverty for the US as a whole, detailed data on local communities is much sparser. But a comparison of current US statistics with detailed local statistics from the 2000 US Census is revealing in how exceptional poverty is in Vigo County. However, we follow the trend when it comes to female poverty, it strikes harder at females everywhere. Figure 2 shows female poverty rates by age. What is most revealing about Figure 2, is that poverty hits younger people the hardest. This was not always true, once, less than 100 years ago, poverty struck hardest at the elderly, but government programs, especially Social Security, new public policies protecting pension plans, Medicare and Medicaid, transformed the “face” of poverty from one of single, elderly people, to children and women.

Figure 3 shows how disproportionate the impact of poverty is on children. Almost one-quarter of every child in Vigo County, 10 years ago, was living in poverty. What about today? Nearly one in five pre-schoolers live in poverty. How does that affect their education and personal development? Should we blame the children for their poverty status the same way we blame their parents?

Poverty is not an equal opportunity. Indeed, poverty strikes much harder at minority people. Figure 4 shows rates of poverty for the US and for Vigo County by race and ethnicity. So many people object to policies like Affirmative Action, but few seem to object to what seems like a racial preference program for poverty. The odds of living in poverty, if you are “different”, is nearly double in Vigo County and nearly triple in Vigo County compared to the US as a whole.

One reason why poverty is so hard to alleviate in the US compared to other industrial democracies is because of our long cultural history of Protestant-individualism. In short, we tend to blame those in poverty for their situation. We believe that poverty is caused by the presence of poor people, both materially, culturally, and morally. One of the most persistent myths about poverty, which emerged in the early 1980s, is that of generational poverty. Yet, according to the US Census bureau, in the 48 month period from 2003 to 2007, only 1.8 percent of the US population fell below the poverty line for all 48 months. People move in and out of poverty; the rates, however, stay stubbornly persistent.

Poverty is a social condition. It is a structural feature of our society. Yes, that is a sociological insight which, in a society so inoculated to the presence of poverty, in a county where high rates of poverty have been normalized to the point that most of us who live here don’t even notice it, a statement like “poverty is a structural feature of our society” is pretty abstract and likely meaningless. Maybe these examples will help.

Figure 5 shows the federal poverty guidelines for 2009. Currently minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. Working full time and for a full year, a worker at the minimum wage would earn $14500. That is 130% of the poverty income threshold for a one person family. Make that person a single-mother with a child and working full time at minimum wage lands her in poverty. In short, public policy mandates that people be paid a minimum wage that is at or below the poverty level. Hence, the willingness to work and work hard at any job is not good enough to escape poverty.

According to the most recent Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH), published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the third fastest growing occupation in the US is that of home health aide. The BLS notes that this job requires very little training, limited to short, on-the-job training. Hence, anyone can do it, who is physically able. And currently almost 900 thousand people do, with opportunities growing daily. Home health aides earn on average $21,400, or below the poverty threshold for a family of four. The question to ask is not why would anyone do this work, but instead, the question should be, we need nearly 900 thousand people to do this work, who is going to do it? Poverty assures that we have people to do it as well as such jobs help create the structural poverty in our society.

One of the largest occupations in the US is known by the BLS as “Laborers and Freight, Stock, and Material Movers, Hand,” a precise and clinical term for “back labor.” The OOH notes this job, like home health aides is easily learned, with a short, on-the-job training. Anyone can do it, who is physically able. And over 2.3 million people do and earn, on the average, $24,690, just above the poverty level for a family of four. These jobs may pay a wage that keeps people just above the official poverty threshold, but one dollar above the threshold doesn’t change much, except reduces one’s access to many services…hence, just above the official poverty thresholds might actually be worse.

Understand that our society needs home health aides and needs people to move boxes around in warehouses and to load UPS and FedEx trucks. In just these two occupations, we are accounting for 3 million people, 2.7 percent of the labor force. There are many, many more low income jobs, that require little training or education, that pay low wages. When I state poverty is a structural feature of our society, this is what I am talking about. Our society needs these people to do this work. If everyone earns PhDs, that just means there will be PhDs doing that kind of work and for similarly low pay.

If “hard work” is a core value of the United States, what does it say when hard work is rewarded with poverty? For millions of Americans and thousands of Vigo Countians, working hard isn’t enough.
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