On September 13, the Census Bureau released a report that the U.S. economy had performed well for many Americans in 2015. The report indicated that the poverty rate had fallen by 1.2 percentage points last year – which was the biggest decline in one year since 1968.
That is good news, in fact very good news, for the state of poverty in the United States. But, even with this shining light, shadows remain across the country. States of poverty still exist and much more needs to be done to reduce them.
Unfortunately, in the run-up to the election there has been a poverty of discussion regarding poverty. The news cycles have been dominated by reporting and commentary on the personalities, the platform performance, and the problems of the presidential candidates.
Little attention has been paid to policy matters. When policy issues are addressed, it is usually around hot-button issues such as immigration, terrorism, and the demise of the middle class. Poverty is at the bottom of the list.
The national progress on poverty in 2015 provides the platform for focusing and intensifying our poverty-related efforts and initiatives going forward. To accomplish that it is essential to understand and grapple with the states of poverty.
In a recent New York Times article, Quoctrung Bui examined the size of the gap between rich and poor in the period from 2000 to 2014. Bui found that in poorer states like Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi the gap narrowed. But, in wealthier states like New York, California and New Jersey the gap widened significantly.
The changes have not just occurred at the state level. They have also occurred within states as well. Earlier this year, the Economic Policy Institute issued a studythat presented its findings on changes in economic inequality by state, metropolitan areas, and counties based upon its analysis of 2013 data.
As might be expected, at the state level, the gap had widened most substantially in states such as New York and Connecticut. Surprisingly, Wyoming was also on this list.
At the metropolitan area level, the widest gap was for Jackson Hole, which straddles Wyoming and Idaho, where the top 1 percent earned on average 213 times the average income of the bottom 99 percent of families. Other areas with the biggest gaps included: Naples-Immokalee-Marco Island, Florida (73.2%), Gardnerville Ranchos, Nevada (46.1%); and, San Angelo, Texas (40.9%).
The widest gaps by county tended to mirror the gaps by metropolitan area. For example, the widest gap of 233 percent was in Teton, Wyoming which includes part of Jackson Hole. Other counties with big gaps were LaSalle, Texas (125.6%), and Shacklelford, Texas (117.1%).
While there are widening gaps and significant differences between the rich and the poor within states, there are also significant differences in terms of the incidence of poverty across a state. Even though they are wealthier states, New York, Texas and Florida all have many counties with high poverty rates.
Illinois has 102 counties. In its Report on Illinois Poverty issued in January 2015, the Social Impact Research Center put 46 of those counties on its warning or watch list because they are “experiencing particularly negative conditions and trends on four key indicators: poverty, unemployment, teen births and high school graduation.” The Center’s report also disclosed that in the period from 2000 to 2013 the share of the poor in the suburbs in the six-county Chicago region had grown from 34% to 48%.
The bottom line is that data in the aggregate conceals as much as it reveals. To truly understand and address the state of poverty within the U.S. it is essential to drill down deeply into the states of poverty.
Those states are defined not only by geography but by the conditions and psychology of the individuals and families in poverty. One way of looking at poverty from that perspective is in three states: struggling, stagnating and suffering.
The struggling state can be characterized as the conditions and circumstances of the working poor or lower incoming working class. The State of Working Floridareport issued recently by Florida International University disclosed that the lowest income working class in Florida grew by 1.1 in the past year. The five main occupations for lower wage workers were sales; food preparation and service; office and administrative support; building and maintenance cleaning; and, transportation and material-moving jobs. During the past five years, the average wage for those workers dropped by 6.7 percent.
The stagnating state can be characterized as the conditions and circumstances of those who have dropped out of the workforce and are no longer seeking jobs. As aWhite House Report released in June of this year highlighted many of those individuals are prime age males (ages 25-54). The percentage of those out of the workforce has gone from a peak of “98 percent to 88 percent today.” The reasons for declining labor force participation in this group include: reductions in the demand for lower-skilled labor; lack of appropriate education; and, increased incarceration.
The suffering state can be characterized as the conditions and circumstances of those who are locked in generational poverty. They were born poor and for the most part they stay poor. In chapter 2 on “The Facts” about poverty in its important report, Opportunity, Responsibility, and Security: A Consensus Plan for Reducing Poverty and Restoring the American Dream, a working group from the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution observed, “In contrast to the decline in poverty rates, there has been no progress in increasing economic mobility.”
In conclusion, the states of poverty are complex and interdependent. They demand both place-based and person-based solutions. There is no one size fits all answer.
As we noted in our last blog, “An American Elegy”, there are a number of groups and individuals that have developed material that can be used as input and reference points to craft those solutions.
After November 8, it will be time to put that material to work to make work make a difference in the lives of all. It will be time to move as President Barack Obama has labeled it from the “silly season” to the serious season. It will be time because the states and stakes of poverty remain much too high for those 43.1 million Americans still in poverty and this nation itself.