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Challenges We Face Reducing Poverty

September 15th, 2011 1 comment

As I prepare a piece about the 2010 poverty numbers released this week – I revisited this piece I wrote two years ago at Talking Points Memo:

“During the recessions that occurred between 1980 and 1982, the national poverty rate increased by 2 full percentage points – more than 5 million persons entered poverty during that time. Poverty continued to increase after the 1982 recession officially ended, rising above 15% of the population in 1983. It wasn’t until 1998 that poverty rates returned to their pre-1980 levels. After a few years of robust economic opportunity in the late 1990s, poverty rates rose again during the jobless recovery following the 2001 recession. From 2001 to 2007, more than 4 million Americans fell into poverty because they were unable to find good paying jobs.

Today, we find ourselves in a position comparable to the early 1980s. What are the prospects for reducing poverty after we emerge from the current recession into recovery?

Although we assume poverty reduction is a policy goal for the Obama Administration and the Democratic Party, there are many reasons to be concerned about rising poverty levels and about the likelihood they will remain high.

One obstacle is political will. The focus today is on jump-starting the economy, ending two wars, shoring up financial markets, and pushing through health care reform. Success on these issues will be critical to future growth and development of our society, but even attempting to address these challenges comes with a heavy political price for Obama. As LBJ found during Vietnam, efforts to create a stronger safety net for working poor families is very difficult without political capital and popularity. Yet, if poverty reduction gets pushed to the next term, it will have to compete for space on the agenda with reducing record budget deficits and crumbling entitlements for retirees.

We should be honest though, reducing poverty is not exactly a top priority for the Left at this point. And, the broader public is unlikely to be concerned about poverty once unemployment rates begin to subside, housing markets appear stable, and investment portfolios regain most of what was lost since 2007.

A second obstacle to reducing poverty, however, is the very nature of the economy itself. When recovery comes, it again may be a jobless recovery where a wide swath of low- and formerly-middle income adults has difficulty finding good paying jobs even though GDP and the stock market are trending upward. We should expect it will be several years before the unemployment rates among individuals without college degrees return to pre-2008 levels. Even when jobs are found, many workers may find their job does not pay enough to lift their family out of poverty.

The weakened state of the nonprofit community also makes it difficult to fight poverty and help low-income families achieve greater economic well-being. Even though there have been few cuts to federal programs so far, the recession has hit every revenue source for nonprofit service organizations. State and local government budgets are cutting back, and the largest cuts to government funding for social services and antipoverty programs may be yet to come. In addition, private philanthropy is down and expected to remain down for the foreseeable future. Public and private funding cuts lead to what I refer to in my book as a “subtraction ripple effect.” Funding cuts don’t just translate into fewer clients getting help in the short-term. Instead, these cuts destabilize the operations of the nonprofit sector on which our safety net is founded and depends. Cuts today mean there will be fewer and fewer places to turn to for help next year when poverty rates are still on the rise.

Given the severity of the recession and the slow road ahead, poverty reduction needs to be more prominent on the policy agenda. If the country is to emerge fully from this downturn, we need to ensure that assistance is available to help the unemployed and underemployed deal with their economic troubles, find work, and increase their earnings so they may contribute to the recovery.”

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New Brookings Report on Suburban Poverty and Safety Nets

October 7th, 2010 No comments

Click here to read “Strained Suburbs:The Social Service Challenges of Rising Suburban Poverty” my latest Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program report on trends in suburban poverty and their implications for suburban safety nets.

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Changing Geography of Poverty, Similar Characteristics of the Poor

June 1st, 2010 No comments

Cities and suburbs have come to embody common established roles in discussions about social welfare policy and economic opportunity in metropolitan America. Discussion of poverty typically focuses on central city neighborhoods, whereas suburbs are seen as destinations of economic opportunity. The 2010 Census, however, will show dramatic changes in rates of poverty across urban and suburban neighborhoods that will upset this familiar urban-suburban narrative about poverty and opportunity in metropolitan America.

A preview of these changes can be found in a recent report by the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution.  While the percentage of Americans living below the poverty line remains much higher in cities than in suburban areas (18.2% versus 9.5% respectively), poverty rates have been rising at a faster rate in many suburbs. The number of poor persons in the suburbs of the 95 largest metropolitan increased by 25% since 2000, compared to a 5.6% increase in the primary cities of those metro areas. Consistent with what we might expect, Brookings Institution research shows that about half of the suburban poor are white, compared to about one-quarter of the poor residing in cities. The characteristics of the urban and suburban poor, however, are strikingly similar in other respects. For example, the share of working poor persons who are working at least part-time is nearly identical in suburbs (50.8%) and primary cities (48.0%). The share of the poor who are foreign born is nearly the same across suburban areas (18.9%) and primary cities (22.3%). Moreover, female-headed families compose quite similar percentages of poor households in cities as in suburbs (29.2% versus 27.5% respectively).

Such findings suggest that rising poverty rates in suburbs may be driven by many of the same economic and demographic factors that have led to rising poverty in cities: the decline of good paying jobs; persistent unemployment; immigration; and the growing number of children being raised in single-parent households. It also suggests that the strategies for reducing poverty and helping low-income, low-skill job-seekers find work may be more similar in suburbs and cities than is typically assumed.  Among other supports, working poor families in our metropolitan (and rural) areas need access to job training and job search assistance, affordable housing and child care, earned income tax credits that make work pay better, and food assistance through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), as well as through local food banks and pantries. Moreover, these data suggest that there is a greater shared economic fate between cities and their suburbs than is commonly realized. This shared fate demands stronger regional solutions and regional partnerships to promote opportunity and delivery of safety net assistance, rather than the current paradigm of hyper-competitiveness that portrays urban-suburban dynamics as a zero-sum game.

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Getting the Right Count in 2010

April 2nd, 2010 No comments

A few weeks ago I hosted a conference at the University of Chicago entitled, “Understanding a Dynamic Decade: Population Trends, Public Policy, and the 2010 Census in Chicago.” The goal of the conference was to generate awareness of the 2010 Census and to help community groups identify strategies for encouraging residents in hard-to-count areas to submit their mail-in forms on time.  In addition, a set of afternoon sessions focused on contemporary policy research that makes use of Census data and a session showing community-based organizations how they might use Census data in their own work.

Click here to access video and audio of the conference proceedings. In addition, the Population Research Center at the University of Chicago has created its own 2010 Census website with useful links and information.

Even though Census Day was yesterday, April 1st, the next few weeks are critical if cities and communities are to achieve an accurate count.  During the last week of April Census Bureau staff will begin following up on nonresponse to the Census mail-in forms.  To maximize efficiency and effectiveness of that follow-up work, it is important that community-based organizations encourage local residents to return as many mail-in forms as possible by April 22nd.  The more forms mailed in on time, the more time Census Bureau staff will have to work in harder-to-count areas and ensure a right count in 2010.

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