An Economy That Cannot Provide for the People
Poverty Broadly Impacting U.S. Workers
The Census Bureau recently released a new measure of poverty, meant to more accurately reflect the actual impoverishment facing workers. The overall result confirms what many working families already experience, which is that poverty is far more widespread. The new measure made clear that almost half of all Americans are living in poverty, 146.4 million, or 48 percent of the U.S. population. That is up by 4 million from 2009, the earliest numbers for the newly developed measure. Thirty-two states saw an increase in both absolute numbers and the percentage of people living in poverty and none had a decline.
One in three people, 100 million, are below the official poverty line or close to it. About 51 million of those have household income – meaning in many cases from two jobs – less than 50 percent above the poverty line. For these families, which have been ignored by earlier statistics, 28 percent work full-time, year round. About half live in households headed by a married couple; 49 percent live in the suburbs. Nearly half are non-Hispanic white, 18 percent are African American and 26 percent are Latino.
Paychecks for working poor families continue to shrink. The inflation-adjusted average earnings for the bottom 20 percent of families have fallen from $16,788 in 1979 to just under $15,000, and earnings for the next 20 percent have remained flat at $37,000.
The new measure takes into account medical, commuting and other living costs and includes those below the official poverty line and earning less than 200 percent of the line. The official poverty line for a family of four is about $22,300 and is known to be false. Earnings of about $45,000 for a family of four would be 200 percent of the poverty line. As indicated above at least 40 percent of working families have average earnings of less than $37,000. Even the Census Bureau officials admitted, “There are more people struggling than the official numbers show.”
By the old count, 22 percent of the elderly are either poor or near poor. By the alternate count, which includes the impact of medical costs on income, the figure rises to 34 percent in poverty.
About 39 percent of children are impoverished according to the alternate measure, rising from 14.7 million children in 2009 to 15.7 million in 2010. According to Census figures, the child poverty rate increased in 27 states. At 38.2 percent, African American children had the highest rates of poverty, while white and Asian children were below the national average. The rate for Hispanic children was 32.3 percent. “Children who live in poverty, especially young children, are more likely than their peers to have cognitive and behavioral difficulties, to complete fewer years of education, and, as they grow up, to experience more years of unemployment,” the Census admitted.
Consider also that the Bureau’s poverty line of $22,300 for a family of four works out to about $15 per day per person for everything: food, clothing, housing, medical care, education, transportation, heat, and so on. It is also the case that as families approach 200 percent of the poverty line, many states eliminate eligibility for food stamps, Medicaid, tax credit and other government aid programs. This serves to force those just surviving back into greater poverty.
In the midst of a struggling economy and continuing high levels of unemployment, U.S. cities are feeling the pressure from increased numbers of hungry and homeless families according to a U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) report on the status of Hunger and Homelessness in 29 cities in America (below) that was released today by the U.S. Conference of Mayors on a news conference call.
For nearly three decades, The Conference of Mayors has documented the magnitude of the issues of hunger and homelessness in the nation’s cities, examining key indicators of the problems and describing efforts cities are making to address these challenges.
“Mayors have always grappled with social issues and their economic consequences, but now these issues are more pronounced than ever because of the weak national economy. As mayors, we are responsible for caring for our residents who are struggling to make ends meet and will continue to do so, even as resources for local programs are slashed in Congress,” said Asheville, NC Mayor Terry Bellamy who co-chairs the USCM Task Force on Hunger and Homelessness.
According to report findings, all but four of the survey cities noted that requests for emergency food assistance increased over the past year by an average of 15 percent. And among those requesting food assistance, cities noted that even those with jobs are going hungry — 51 percent of those requesting assistance were families, 26 percent were employed, 19 percent were elderly and 11 percent were homeless.
With joblessness in many cities reaching double-digits, unemployment was cited by the survey cities as the main cause of hunger, followed by poverty, low wages and high housing costs.
Increasing demand and decreasing resources were most frequently found as the biggest challenge to addressing hunger. In an attempt to meet the need, emergency kitchens had to reduce the quantity of food people could receive or the amount of food offered per meal in 86 percent of the survey cities; and food pantries had to limit the number of times people could visit each month in 68 percent of the survey cities. Even with such efforts, 82 percent of the cities reported having to turn people away because of lack of resources.
When asked for suggestions to reduce hunger in America’s cities, respondents said that providing more affordable housing, increasing food stamp benefits and expanding employment-training programs would be viable solutions.
Cities also highlighted several programs currently in place to feed those in need. Some best practices include an urban gardening project in Kansas City, which serves as a source for fruits and vegetables for children and focuses on the 10 most requested items such as: non-sweet cereal, vegetables, canned tuna, and fruit; a program in Asheville that specifically serves hungry and homeless veterans through a community ministry; a partnership between the Los Angeles
County Department of Public Social Services and the local food bank’s CalFresh program that shares information to identify potential clients and helps them through the application process; and a partnership between the SHARE Food Program and the Horticultural Society in Philadelphia to match food cupboards with local gardeners to help them provide locally-grown fresh produce at significantly reduced rates. The report contains a full listing of best practices.
In the area of homelessness, 42 percent of the cities reported an increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness by an average of seven percent. Among families, the number experiencing homelessness increased by an average of 15 percent with 58 percent of the survey cities reporting an increase. Once again, unemployment led the list of causes of homeless families. This was followed by lack of affordable housing and by poverty. Unemployment also led the list of causes of homelessness among individuals, followed by lack of affordable housing, mental illness and lack of needed services, and substance abuse and lack of needed services.
When asked for suggestions to combat homelessness, respondents called for providing more mainstream assisted housing, rather than shelters. They also called for more permanent housing for people with disabilities and more or better-paying employment opportunities.
As with hunger, the lack of resources is a critical problem. Because no beds were available, emergency shelters in two-thirds of the survey cities reported turning away homeless families with children; shelters in 70 percent of the cities reported turning away unaccompanied individuals. In considering the outlook for next year, officials were not optimistic: those in 64 percent of the surveyed cities expect the number of homeless families to increase, and those in 55 percent of the cities expect the number of homeless individuals to increase. And while officials expect the number of homeless people to grow, no survey city expects the resources to provide emergency shelter to increase over the next year.
Kansas City, Missouri Mayor Sly James, who also co-chairs the USCM Hunger and Homelessness Task Force and participated in the press conference call said, “This long, deep recession has profoundly affected our citizens that have the very least. In this season of giving, our report once again shows how very great the need is in cities across the nation.
“Families, who once lived in middle class homes, now find themselves without a roof over their heads. Young and old, black and white, educated, and not all are finding themselves in cold lines at missions, many for the first time in their lives.
“At the municipal level, as they are nationally, our needs are increasing while our resources continue to decrease. In our community, we have instituted a Homelessness Task Force that works across state and county lines in both Kansas City, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri to find collaborative and broad-based solutions to this complex problem. We are focused on a “housing first” solution, because all of our social services stem from finding a place to live. I hope this report can serve as a call to once again remember our duty to serve those who have nothing, feed the hungry, and shelter the poor.”
USCM CEO and Executive Director Tom Cochran explained why the organization conducts the survey annually: “This report brings national attention to the issues of hunger and homelessness in this country and helps to direct resources where they are needed. As local governments are struggling with lower tax bases and dwindling budgets, the Conference of Mayors will continue to document the need for emergency services in cities across America.” […]
Prepared by City Policy Associates, the report contains individual profiles for each city in the survey including the median household income, the metro unemployment rate, the monthly foreclosure rate, the percentage of people in the city who fall below the poverty line and contact information for specific service providers. The report is based on data collected from The U.S. Conference of Mayors Hunger and Homelessness Information Questionnaire, completed by the cities generally for the one-year period from September 1, 2010 to August 31, 2011. A copy of the report, which contains the survey questionnaire can be downloaded at The Conference of Mayors website at www.usmayors.org.
The 29 cities in this survey, whose mayors are members of The U.S. Conference of Mayors Task Force on Hunger and Homelessness are:
Asheville, North Carolina
Charleston, South Carolina
Charlotte, North Carolina
Des Moines, Iowa
Gastonia, North Carolina
Kansas City, Missouri
Los Angeles, California
Providence, Rhode Island
St. Paul, Minnesota
Salt Lake City, Utah
San Antonio, Texas
San Francisco, California
Trenton, New Jersey
States Seek Drug Tests for Welfare Recipients
At least 36 states across the U.S. are proposing laws that would require applicants for and recipients of a variety of public aid programs to undergo drug testing in which they would have to provide a urine sample. Several states, including Arizona, Florida, Indiana and Missouri, have already passed such laws.
Participation in government assistance programs is nearing, and in some areas, exceeding record highs.
More than 45 million U.S. citizens, or about 15 percent of the population, now receive food stamps, according to numbers released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in October. This is the largest number of food stamp participants recorded since the beginning of the program. The proportions of those receiving food stamps are even higher in certain states, especially southern ones, with a higher level of poverty. [In New York State in 2010 three million people needed food stamps, with the number higher today. Food stamps provide only about $150 per month for food purchases.]
Most of the current proposals for drug testing focus on recipients of cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. But some states are also looking at requiring applicants to undergo drug testing in order to receive food stamps, heating assistance, unemployment assistance or Medicaid.
Cities such as Chicago, Illinois and Flint, Michigan, have considered testing public housing recipients for drugs, while proposals in U.S. Congress would require such testing for public housing recipients nationwide.
In Georgia, a number of Republican state legislators pre-filed bills to require drug testing of all applicants for TANF; the State Senate version requires drug testing for Medicaid recipients as well. […]
The Georgia proposal, like the proposals pending across the country, is likely to face major court challenges.
On October 24 Federal District Judge Mary Scriven suspended Florida’s law, which passed in May of this year, after the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the Florida Justice Institute had filed suit on behalf of Luis Lebron, 35, a Navy veteran and college student, who declined to take a drug test.
Federal imprisonment for unpaid debt has been illegal in the U.S. since 1833. It is a practice people associate more with the age of Dickens than modern-day America. But as more Americans struggle to pay their bills in the wake of the recession, collection agencies are using harsher methods to get their money, ushering in the return of debtor’s prisons
NPR reports that it is becoming increasingly common for people to serve jail time as a result of their debt. Because of “sloppy, incomplete or even false documentation,” many borrowers facing jail time do not even know they are being sued by creditors:
Take, for example, what happened to Robin Sanders in Illinois. She was driving home when an officer pulled her over for having a loud muffler. But instead of sending her off with a warning, the officer arrested Sanders, and she was taken right to jail.
“That’s when I found out [that] I had a warrant for failure to appear in Macoupin County. And I didn’t know what it was about.” Sanders owed $730 on a medical bill. She says she didn’t even know a collection agency had filed a lawsuit against her. [...]
A company will often sell off its debt to a collection agency, generally called a creditor. That creditor files a lawsuit against the debtor requiring a court appearance. A notice to appear in court is supposed to be given to the debtor. If they fail to show up, a warrant is issued for their arrest.
More than a third of all states now allow borrowers who do not pay their bills to be jailed, even when debtor’s prisons have been explicitly banned by state constitutions. A report by the American Civil Liberties Union found that people were imprisoned even when the cost of doing so exceeded the amount of debt they owed.
Sean Matthews, a homeless New Orleans construction worker, was incarcerated for five months for $498 of legal debt, while his jail time cost the city six times that much. Some debtors are even forced to pay for their jail time themselves, adding to their financial troubles.
Stories of surprise arrests for unpaid debt have been reported in states including Indiana, Tennessee and Washington. In Kansas City, one man ended up in jail after missing only a furniture payment. The Federal Trade Commission received more than 140,000 complaints related to debt collection in 2010, and they have taken 10 debt collection agencies to court for their practices in the past three years.
Beverly Yang, a legal aid attorney, says many debtors — and judges — don’t know debtor’s rights, which results in the accused being intimidated into a pay agreement. She has seen judges interrogate debtors about why they cannot pay more and whether they are trying hard enough to find a job.
Debt collection is a lucrative business — the industry is set to grow 26 percent in the next three years.