By Clarence Hightower, Ph.D.
The Anti-Poverty Soldier
Executive Director, Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties
ST. PAUL, Minn. (May 29, 2015) – For the last ten years or so the National Community Action Partnership, a nonprofit agency that represents the interests of the more than 1,000 Community Action agencies throughout America, has published a quarterly magazine called The Promise. In one of the most recent issues of The Promise is a feature article highlighting what poverty in America looks like in 2015.
This rather adroit essay, written by Jim Masters and Allen Stansbury of the Center for Community Futures in Berkeley, California, identifies a number of poverty-related indicators including stagnant wages, a precipitous decline in the labor participation rate, and an income gap that continues to swell beyond the absurd.
The authors also provide insight into the changing structure of the family, noting today that more than one-quarter of all households are single person households, an increase of more than 300% since the 1950s. Masters and Stansbury also indicate that since 1960, the number of households where the mother is the sole provider has quadrupled and one-third of all children are raised in single parent households today.
National Public Radio also explored this subject matter recently in a piece entitled “The Changing Picture of Poverty: Hard Work is Just not Enough.” While illustrating an assortment of additional ways poverty has changed over the last five decades, the NPR story added some interesting notes such as the fact that approximately one-third of all those living in poverty during the 1960s did not have hot and cold running water or indoor plumbing. Furthermore, only one-half of those living in poverty even owned a telephone. Of course this is generally not the case today as most households, regardless of socioeconomic status, possess the most basic amenities.
The NPR report also references the significance of isolation in relation to poverty. This is a common theme of poverty in any era, whether referring to those isolated in American cities or in rural counties throughout America. However, NPR talks about a new portrait of poverty that stretches beyond everyday social isolation and argues that those living in poverty today suffer from multiple forms of isolation. These include, but are not limited to, emotional, familial, and spiritual isolation as well as isolation from opportunity and other essential services.
I believe that each of these pieces do a great job of explaining what poverty looks like today and further suggest that in spite of what the experts say, upward mobility and employment growth are listless at best and most likely waning. It is from this point in the conversation that I wish to add one of the most glaring differences regarding how poverty in America looks today, as compared to just over 50 years ago when the “War on Poverty” was officially declared.
I believe this difference is that an ever increasing number of Americans are just one or two steps from falling into the despair of poverty. Recent studies from MIT, Stanford University and the Oregon Center for Public Policy among others have used more modern and comprehensive analyses to demonstrate how precarious the financial position is of most American families is today.
In spite of what the official poverty rate suggests, data from the aforementioned institutions asserts that nearly one-half of all Americans are economically insecure. Many households are classified as such based on the inordinate amount of their income that is dedicated to housing. This trend of economic insecurity appears to be growing and as Masters and Stansbury write, “Economic opportunity (in America) is shrinking and has been for almost 30 years.”
As the result of the economic crisis of 2007-2008, the ensuing foreclosure epidemic, and the continuation of corporate downsizing and offshoring, America has witnessed the rise of an emerging class that financial analysts have dubbed the “new poor.” Considering the increasing lack of living-wage jobs, declining workforce participation and mounting income inequality, it appears that this class and the total number of Americans living in poverty will continue to grow.
There would seem to be a degree of hope in the recent push to increase the minimum wage, whether to the $10.10 per hour as proposed by President Obama or the calls for $15 per hour which have been already been approved for some workers in cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland.
And yet many still question whether or not $15 per hour is adequate. For example, consider the National Low Income Housing Coalitions latest “Out of Reach Report.” The report states that in Minnesota alone, one must earn a wage of $17.20 per hour just to be able to afford a fair-market two bedroom apartment. Of the twelve states that comprise the Midwest / upper Midwest region, only workers in Illinois would be required to earn a higher wage.
So as these trends fester, and the middle-class, working-class, and those currently living in poverty are further relegated to the margins of the American economy, what can be done? The National Community Action Partnership has recently drafted a White Paper on “strategies to reduce poverty and economic insecurity.” And yet, even as this White Paper admits, there must be significant changes in the way the American economy operates.
America cannot allow more and more of its citizens to fall into poverty. At the same time, we must utilize every resource, strategy and gateway available to us, to help lift those that are already poor, up and out of poverty for good. Should these negative trends continue, one can only shudder at the implications for the future?
Clarence Hightower is the Executive Director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104.