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7 January 2011: The week before Christmas 2010, the US Census Bureau released its latest poverty statistics. The numbers are sobering. Forty-four million people - one in seven Americans - lived below the official poverty level in 2009, the most since the Census Bureau began tracking poverty rates 51 years ago. In 2009, 40 million Americans received government assistance to purchase food each month, and 50 million went hungry at one time or another during the year. Fifty-one million Americans lacked health coverage in 2009.
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Minorities account for more than half of all persons in poverty. African-Americans and Latinos have poverty rates of more than 25 per cent, or twice that of the general population. One in three African-American children lives in families that have trouble providing for them. Seventy-one per cent of African-American children and 50 per cent of Latino children were born to unmarried mothers. Unmarried mothers with children are the family structure with the highest poverty rate.
When the data were released, the mass media generally attributed the spike in poverty numbers to the severe economic downturn that began in 2007. “Since Great Recession, More Working Families in Poverty,” read a headline in The Washington Post, typical of how the data were reported. The reality, however, is that the U.S. poverty rate rose even during the long economic expansions of the 1980s, 1990s, and up to 2007. The poverty rate rose for all groups except the elderly who were cushioned by federal retirement and health care benefits indexed to inflation.
Clearly, economic growth has not been enough to reduce poverty significantly in the United States.
The worst poverty rates are in the larger cities, led by Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo and Milwaukee. Mayors in these and other cities are experimenting with novel programs in attempts to manage poverty. Mayors are receiving more fundamental help from the federal government than at any time in at least 30 years. The Obama administration’s policies regarding education, health care, and low-income neighborhoods amount to a new federal antipoverty agenda based on the encouragement and support of local, evidence-based innovations.
The poverty debate
The conditions that lead people to fall into poverty or remain in poverty have been heatedly debated in the US for at least three decades. One argument maintains that poverty is a consequence of individual decisions, such as whether or not to stay in school, look for work, hold a job, get married, have children, be a responsible parent, and so on.
The counter argument holds that poverty is a factor of structural forces, such as globalization, racism, access to good schools, and economic policies, which limit an individual’s choices. The debate is contentious and politicized and explains the difficulty of governments at all levels to enact policy changes that might effectively reduce poverty.
Virtually all serious policymakers, whatever their views on the causes of poverty, agree that reducing poverty in the US means increasing the labor market prospects for less-educated workers, supplementing the earnings of low-wage workers, and meeting the challenges faced by single-parent families. Yet, policies to address these issues tend to be compromises with limited effectiveness.
For example, the $1,000 per child tax credit implemented by the Bush administration and recently extended by the US Congress provides an income supplement for child care and other expenses. However, low-income families that do not earn enough wages to owe federal income taxes, including most African-American families in poverty, cannot receive the credit.
The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 is another compromise policy that does not serve low-income families particularly well. Workers can receive up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave per year to care for a newborn or adopted child or immediate family members with serious health conditions or to take medical leave for their own serious health problems. Since the Act provides only unpaid leave, it is not a viable option for most low-income families (the largest proportion of whom are Black and Latino) that cannot rely on savings or financial support from other family members.
In fact, eligibility for most of the major American social welfare programs Social Security, Earned Income Tax Credit, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, among others is related to income status or marital status. While these programs are clearly intended to reward certain behaviors, such as getting married or holding a job, their overall effect is a disproportionate impact on racial and ethnic groups.
The Obama administration has introduced several major initiatives to help the nation better respond to changes in the economy and family structure. Notable examples include:
The 2009 Race to the Top program provides funds for local public school districts to develop or expand innovative, evidence-based interventions that can substantially reduce income and racial disparities in educational outcomes, such as expanded early childhood education, class-size reductions, curriculum reforms, improved teacher training, and policies to improve school operations and accountability.
A national system of health care, created by the 2010 Affordable Care Act, helps resolve issues related to rising costs, access to care, and quality of care that cannot be adequately addressed by the current patchwork system of public insurance for certain groups, especially seniors, poor children and adults, the disabled, and immigrants. Frequently overlooked aspects of the Affordable Care Act are provisions that incentivize successful local health care delivery initiatives.
The Promise Neighborhoods program provides grants to communities to create “cradle-to-the-grave” strategies to increase educational and developmental outcomes for all children in distressed communities, similar to the successful Harlem Children’s Zone initiative. Organizations in 21 cities (out of 339 applicants) received development funds in 2010. A second round of development funding, as well as new implementation funding, are scheduled for 2011.
Given the tenor of the American debate about poverty, it’s not surprising that these programs are controversial and announced targets of scrutiny by Republicans in the new Congress.
City mayors’ action
Efforts of urban mayors and their partners to reduce poverty in ways that are measurable and replicable often extend well beyond what the federal government is doing.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Opportunity NYC program, introduced in 2007, pays poor New Yorkers for staying in school, attending parent-teacher conferences, keeping jobs, and similar positive actions. The average family in the program receives $3,000 per year, funded by private donations. A 2010 assessment found the program to be effective in such areas as getting people to open bank accounts, receive regular medical attention, and hold a job, but does not affect school attendance or performance. While the program is designed to promote positive behavior, it is also an acknowledgement of the need to provide sufficient income support to families.
Mayor Otis Johnson of Savannah, Georgia led the 2005 creation of Step Up: Savannah’s Poverty Reduction Initiative. Nearly a hundred public and private organizations coordinate their efforts, with a focus on asset building, affordable housing, health care, and transportation. The goal of the coalition was to reduce Savannah’s persistently high poverty rate by 2010. Recent Census data show a 1.9 per cent drop in Savannah’s poverty rate, counter to that of almost every other American city. Step Up combines the strongest aspects of many antipoverty strategies, says Mayor Johnson, in a “balance of conservatism with the personal responsibility component, liberalism with the social services component, and it meets the moderates in the middle."
Los Angeles, under Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, partners with Los Angeles County in a workforce development program called Greater Avenues for Independence, or GAIN, to help welfare families prepare for and find employment. GAIN offers job finding workshops, supervised job search, vocational assessment, remedial education, vocational skills training, and post-employment services, as well as help with transportation, child care, special job-related expenses such as uniform and tools, and domestic violence, substance abuse and mental health counseling. Studies show significant long-term returns to GAIN training, evidence that coordinating training with local labor market demand and providing additional support services to address potential employment barriers can move low-income families to financial independence.
Former Washington, DC Mayor Adrian Fenty staked his political career on improving his city’s public education system, including support for charter schools. A success story by any standard is the Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter High School, which educates some of the most at-risk students in the country and boasts a stunning 100 per cent college acceptance rate for graduates. In addition to a rigorous college-preparatory curriculum, Thurgood Marshall Academy offers in-school and after-school support programming such as academic tutoring, personalized mentoring, extended summer programs, enrichment activities, one-on-one college guidance, and financial literacy and budgeting workshops for students and parents.
While the Thurgood Marshall Academy educates high school students, a public Montessori school operated by the Rochester, New York City School District achieves impressive results with children in grades pre-K to 6. There is no tuition charged to attend the school, which was started during the administration of former Mayor William A. Johnson, Jr., a leader of education reform. The school focuses on individualized instruction, mixed-age groupings of students, and a specialized Montessori curriculum that nurtures independent, self-directed learning and self-assessment. Students are among the highest performers in New York State.
Both the Thurgood Marshall Academy and Rochester Montessori demonstrate that increased investments in education in academic and life skills can raise the educational attainment and abilities of poor children.
Philosophically, Americans have always favored providing a “hand up” rather than a “hand out” to reduce poverty. City mayors, through their leadership and experimentation, are beginning to point the way on how best to accomplish this.
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The worst poverty rates are in the larger cities, led by Detroit and Cleveland (Photo: Cover of a Time Magazine special report on Detroit)
On other pages
American cities face new realities after lost decade
American market research firms systematically classify the residents of a metropolitan area according to their purchasing power. Each consumer group receives a descriptive moniker according to its specific demographic, economic, and social characteristics: “Successful Suburbanites”, for example or “Urban Working Families” or “Low Income Southern Blacks”. The communities in which these groups live are likewise labeled: “Wealthy Seaboard Suburbs”, “Distressed Neighborhoods”, “Rustbelt Neighborhoods”, and so on. Vendors use this information to target the sale of their products and services.
The Brookings Institution takes a similar approach to the entire United States in its recently-released study of the 100 largest US metro areas, The State of Metropolitan America. The traditional geographic divisions of Northeast, South, Midwest, West, and so on as well as commonly-used points of reference such as Rust Belt, Sun Belt, and Silicon Valley are replaced by seven new classifications of metro areas which, according to Brookings, better reflect the “new realities” of demographic, economic, and social changes in the US since 2000 and allow leaders to better target their policies and programs. The metro areas are classified based on common traits rather than geographic proximity.
The “New Heartland”, for example, includes Charleston, South Carolina in the South, Kansas City, Missouri in the Midwest, and Portland, Oregon in the Northwest metro areas that are geographically distant but share the traits of fast-growth and highly-educated residents, as well as lower proportions of Latino and Asian populations than the national average. The “Industrial Core” category includes metro areas from Providence, Rhode Island to Wichita, Kansas, older, slow-growth metro areas with aging, less-diverse populations. The other divisions in the Brookings’ study are “Mid-Sized Magnet”, “Next Frontier”, “Diverse Giant”, “Border Growth”, and “Skilled Anchor”. More