Inequality Trends, Rising Incomes, and More: What to Look for in the New Poverty Data

There is a buzz around the office this morning, and it’s not just because pumpkin spice lattes are back. It’s because this week we wonks are going to be diving into a treasure trove of new data on poverty, income, and health insurance from the Census Bureau.

Two Census reports—the Current Population Survey and the American Community Survey—are critical resources for advocates, researchers, journalists, and policymakers alike. They provide rich information on issues that impact people’s health and economic wellbeing, ranging from their living situations, to public benefits usage, to how much money they earn.

These data, which are for 2015, inform us about what is working to cut poverty and reduce inequality, and how we might do better from a public policy perspective. Here are four key trends wonks will be examining closely:

Incomes are rising—likely for minimum wage workers, too

Some researchers are forecasting that real median household income might see the largest one-year jump in more than a decade. Low-wage workers should see a rise, too—especially in states that raised their minimum wage. This increase is particularly important for women, who make up nearly two-thirds of all minimum wage workers.

Rising wages, particularly for low-wage workers, could mean that this is the year we learn that the gender wage gap among full-time workers—which stood at women earning 79 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts—finally broke the 80 cent-barrier. (Not quite shattering this particular glass ceiling, but moving a step closer!)

Anti-poverty advocates will also examine these data to see if the income gains will reach families in deep poverty—those who have incomes of less than half the poverty line (approximately $12,000 annually, for a family of four).

Don’t kid yourself—racial and gender inequalities are alive and well

Any improvement in the poverty rate and the gender wage gap is critical, but we’re a long way from widespread economic equality. For example, the wage gap for women of color is severe: Last year, African American women typically earned only 60 cents, Native American women 59 cents, and Hispanic women 55 cents, for every dollar earned by their white Non-Hispanic male counterparts.

These gender and racial disparities apply to poverty rates, too. Hispanics and African Americans experienced poverty rates about 2.5 times higher last year than white Non-Hispanics. Women are also more likely to face poverty, as are individuals born in a foreign country, persons with disabilities, and single-parent families.

There is a hidden story in these data about who is more likely to be poor and paid unfairly that wonks and others need to shine a light on.

The data are seriously flawed—especially for LGBTQ people

Every year this Census release sparks conversation about how the stats themselves could be improved. Two topics come up repeatedly: The flawed way that we measure poverty and the shocking lack of data about LGBTQ people.

There is widespread agreement that the federal poverty line—$24,300 for a family of four in 2016—is far too low, which means many more Americans are experiencing serious economic hardship than are deemed officially “poor.” This disconnect isn’t surprising, considering the Official Poverty Measure (OPM) was developed more than half a century ago. A lot of things have improved since then—cars, phones, computers, Americans’ appreciation of soccer—but the OPM hasn’t, even as families’ needs and spending patterns have changed dramatically.

The OPM also fails to account for numerous public policies that relieve hardship. This is one reason why many wonks are fans of the Census Bureau’s alternative Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM).

The SPM includes income households receive through assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which lifted 4.7 million people above the poverty line in 2014; as well as tax credits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, which together lifted 9.8 million people out of poverty in 2014. The SPM also incorporates some of households’ necessary expenditures, such as clothing and utilities, and geographic variation in housing costs.

While these poverty measurements are less than ideal, they are far better than having almost no data at all—as is the case for members of the LGBTQ community. The lack of sexual orientation and gender identity data in these data sets is glaring, given that the limited data we do have demonstrate that LGBTQ individuals face higher poverty rates than many other communities. Since funding for anti-poverty initiatives often depends upon being able to show that economic need exists, this dearth of data can prevent the LGBTQ community from receiving help even when there is a clear need.

We must redouble our efforts to ensure we collect much-needed data on the LGBTQ community while also working to reform the way we are collecting and measuring poverty data.

Public policy choices reduce or exacerbate poverty, inequality, and hardship

Last year the Census data demonstrated the huge impact the Affordable Care Act had on Americans’ health care coverage, as uninsured rates fell to a historic low with declines in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. This year wonks anticipate a new low in the uninsurance rate—perhaps even below 9 percent—though it would be even lower if more states expanded Medicaid coverage.

Next week’s release will also show how other smart social programs are effectively reducing poverty. For example, last year’s SPM data revealed that without Social Security fully half of American seniors would have been poor, and that without refundable tax credits, nearly 1 in 4 children would have fallen below the poverty line as well. This evidence has fueled increasing calls from advocates and policymakers to strengthen and expand Social Security, refundable tax credits, and other key safety net programs.

Wonks look forward to continuing to assess our public policy choices based on this year’s data.  We already know a lot about what to do to reduce hardship, boost economic mobility, and increase opportunity.  The new Census data can help us move in the right direction—if we ask the right questions, and look for the answers.


First Person

Where the Internet Doesn’t Reach

“I don’t mean to alarm you,” my friend said just before I visited her home in the hills of rural, Southeastern Ohio, “but there’s no bathroom out here. There’s no running water.”

And the driveway, she said, was a rutted, steep rise of dirt, holes, and gravel—a quarter-mile long.  “The first test,” as she put it.

When my 15-year-old Honda and I actually made it to the top, she came out in front of her house and waved at me, impressed.  She lived in a converted garage with piles of empty cans and tools in the yard, a chimney trembling with wood smoke.

“A lot of people,” she said, “just turn back.”

Rural poverty seems like something out of a Laura Ingalls Wilder book—something quaint and distant. Something over. But many of my neighbors and family members in Appalachia grew up—or their parents grew up—in homes without running water or indoor plumbing. That kind of living is not a relic from the past. It’s the life of many people today, some of whom I know and love.

Not everyone has the internet.

I stopped assuming my friends would have driveways.  Many of them are homesteading in the deep, ridged woods, or squatting in trailers in fields, or just getting by in overcrowded farmhouses. I stopped assuming they would have bathrooms, trash pickup, or even electricity. Not everyone I know has power—either because the bill hasn’t been paid or the house was never on the grid to begin with; wires never reached that far.

And not everyone has the internet.

Not everyone has high-speed or wireless. Not everyone has a computer, or a smart phone. Or a phone phone. The assumption of basic technology, even in the digital age, is just that: an assumption.

I’m fortunate to have internet at home (usually, when I can pay the bill), but living alone with a 5-year-old child means I don’t get to my freelance work at my computer until late at night, after he’s asleep and I’m exhausted.

Until recently, in order to email a W2—which I have to do regularly, to get paid—I had to drive 20 minutes into town to an office store, pay for parking, and pay a few bucks to print out the pages.

Then a friend gave me her old printer so I can print at home.  But I still have to drive across town to the library, which has a free scanner I can use to scan my W2s—and that’s not a process my son will wait patiently through. So I have to pay for a babysitter, and again pay for parking. The privilege of getting paid for my work costs me about $30 in all, and takes up several hours of limited, much-needed, child-free time.

Most people know about the practice of punishing those who are poor with further financial burdens: deposits for utilities, fees on check-cashing and bank accounts, payday loans. All of this is a kind of a poverty tax—it marks you as undesirable and it helps keep you poor.

But there’s a lesser known poverty tax on technology, and it’s paid with your time.

It takes a lot more time and ingenuity to access technology when you’re poor. It takes calling in favors from friends. It takes being at the mercy of parking and babysitters and business hours and irregular internet access at coffee shops and restaurants.

It takes shelling out a few bucks you don’t have for coffee or food for the privilege of sitting at a business with wireless. It takes feeling incredibly nervous that you’ve been there too long, that they’re going to kick you out or make you buy something else, or that the manager at Wendy’s is going to call the cops because you’ve been sitting in the parking lot for hours—as I have done—trying to use their internet for work.

Politicians talk about providing internet to rural, impoverished communities in grand, noble terms. But the reality is simple and harsh: We need the internet to access help.

I need the internet to get help for child support. I need the internet to search for work and apply for more jobs. Once my child starts school, he will need the internet for homework—a common struggle in my community, since children are required to do hours of homework online every night even though over 300 households in my county don’t have any internet access. Public libraries close a few hours after school lets out, and due to budget cuts, they are not open much on the weekend.

We need the internet to access help.

Most services for the poor are online. Job ads are online. Housing information is online. Information about food pantries, seed distribution, free meals, parenting classes, job fairs, shelters, health clinics, and free activities to do with children are online. Even accessing my bank account—to make sure I’m not overdrawn, to make sure I’m not racking up a low balance fee—needs to be done online. Every time I ask for a copy of my statement at the bank, I’m told: “Do you know you can do this online?”

Yes, I know. Do you know that not everyone has that luxury?  

Stop assuming that everyone has the same technology, the same new phone, the same fast laptop.

Maybe if you realize that, you will stop assuming everyone has other basics: like a hot shower, like a stove to cook a meal, like a fridge to store fruits and vegetables, like dental care, like money for much-needed medications.

What are taken as givens, including technology, are actually extravagances for many people. When you’re poor, applying for a job online, or finding a doctor, or simply answering an email, often takes extra money, time, and luck that you don’t have.

That steep, rocky climb I had to make to reach my friend’s house? I climb it, in so many ways, every day.





Paul Ryan Says the Catholic Charity Model Is the Solution to Poverty. Catholics Disagree.

Earlier this week, Speaker Paul Ryan and Senator Ron Johnson, both of Wisconsin, penned an op-ed stating—once again—their belief that charity and individual responsibility are the key to fighting poverty.

“This is how you fight poverty: person to person,” they write.

To illustrate their point, they tell the story of The Joseph Project, a job assistance program run by the Greater Praise Church of God in Christ in Milwaukee. Ryan and Johnson praise The Joseph Project for providing vans that drive Milwaukeeans to Sheboygan County, where they can earn $15 an hour working a factory job. In Milwaukee, by contrast, these workers would likely earn just $8 or $9 an hour.  The drive is an hour commute each way, but Ryan and Johnson assert: “That van represents the difference between poverty and opportunity.”

While it’s important that The Joseph Project is assisting these folks, it’s disingenuous for the Speaker and the Senator to lift up this kind of program as the key to fighting poverty—and even a justification for overhauling our safety net.

The reality is that supporting an adequate minimum wage could also be the difference between poverty and opportunity for these workers. By supporting a minimum wage raise, Ryan could help put an end to poverty wages and save those same workers the two hours they spend each day riding in that van—giving them back some of the family time that Ryan cherishes so much in his own life.

To help the Speaker understand why his take on fighting poverty is so flawed, I suggest he return to the source he often cites as inspiration for his anti-poverty proposals: Catholicism.

In Sunday school classrooms across the country, young Catholics are taught the simplest versions of the Catholic Church’s complicated theology: God’s love is represented by loving parents, Bible stories are boiled down to picture books, and stewardship of creation is taught by tending to one’s own little plant.  And one Sunday school classic, “The Two Feet of Love in Action,” makes it clear that larger systemic solutions are integral to fighting poverty.

“There are two different, but complimentary, ways we can walk the path of love,” the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops explains. “We call these ‘The Two Feet of Love in Action.’” One foot is charity: direct service to help meet the immediate needs of individuals. The other foot is social justice: structural change to end the root causes of poverty.

The van is charity; the minimum wage hike is social justice.

The van is charity; the minimum wage hike is social justice.

Like Ryan, the Catholic Church values charity and applauds the commitment of faith communities like Greater Praise Church that provide direct assistance when people are in need. But, with its commitment to social justice as well, the Church might have some questions about why Ryan is trying to step with just one foot to end poverty. The bishops might even ask why the Speaker hasn’t joined a living wage campaign—one of the examples of social justice on their Two Feet flier.

It serves Ryan’s politics (and budgets) to let charity and other local efforts subsume broader anti-poverty initiatives, to diminish the work of the federal government in curbing poverty, and to pretend we can make meaningful change without making systemic change. But when people who are struggling turn to WIC, the EITC, or SNAP, that’s not dependence—it’s interdependence.

Giving from those who have more to those who have less on a person to person basis is charity, and it’s good. Giving from those who have more to those who have less on a systemic level—making changes to ensure our tax code is fair, passing laws to increase the minimum wage, and ensuring our anti-poverty programs are more robust, not less—is justice, and it’s necessary.

We need charity and social justice to end poverty. Any Sunday school student could teach Speaker Ryan that.




3 Safety Net Improvements That Could Help Keep Families Together

There is a common narrative about the families who are involved with child welfare systems—one that portrays parents as abusive and unfit (or unwilling) to care for their children. But reality is more nuanced than that. The truth is, nearly half of the families who have children removed from their homes cannot meet their basic needs and require additional supports in order to provide for their children.

This is especially true for the parents of young children. The birth of a child is one of the leading triggers of poverty in the United States, and since young children have unique costs—like diapers, formula, and child care—poor families often struggle to make ends meet.

Research continues to confirm what we already know: Children do best when they are raised by their families and in their communities, as long as it is safe. The trauma children experience when they are removed from their parents unnecessarily can have significant and life-long effects, which can be particularly damaging for young children.

Current safety-net programs—including income support and child care and nutrition assistance—are essential for low income families, but if they were modified to be more family-centered, responsive, and flexible, we could prevent unnecessary system involvement and make it easier for families to care for their children safely at home.

Three key strategies could improve existing programs so that they better meet the needs of young children and families.

1. More flexible funding sources to support families facing multiple barriers

Most safety net funding is narrowly focused on providing a specific service, such as food, rent, or utility assistance. These programs are crucial, but the limited focus of each results in gaps across the safety net that can leave families vulnerable.

Nearly half of the families who have children removed from their homes cannot meet their basic needs.

For example, one of the most common reasons that families become involved with child welfare is because caregivers are often forced to leave children at home—without adequate supervision—so that they can go to work or appointments. If families had cash resources to provide for unexpected costs such as backup child care, parents of young children could juggle multiple demands and attend work, school, or appointments while still keeping their children safe.

Funding sources that provide benefits to families through tax programs and direct cash transfers help meet this need. That’s why the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit, which lifted 9.4 million people out of poverty in 2013, are so crucial for millions of low- and moderate-income families. Child allowances, which provide cash benefits to families with young children, would provide even greater flexibility —and have the potential to significantly reduce poverty.

2. Coordinate between the programs that are designed for young children and families

For families who are navigating multiple benefit programs, overlapping, duplicative, or contradicting eligibility requirements can make it difficult to access the supports they need. For instance, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) work requirements are often not aligned with the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). That can make it difficult for families who rely on TANF to participate in WIOA work or training opportunities, since they do not always “count” as work for TANF work participation rates.

In addition, data sharing across programs—along with other information technology enhancements—would help families get the most out of safety net programs. Many states now use document imaging systems to save and file household verifications, and provide call centers for clients to call in and report changes to their status or benefits needs. This can simplify the eligibility determination process and allow states to create a single process for determining eligibility across a number of programs.

Several states participating in the Work Support Strategies demonstration project have implemented these strategies to better integrate various procedures for major safety net programs including Medicaid, SNAP, and child care subsidies.  These states are improving coordination on intake, verification, and periodic redetermination of eligibility to create a more cohesive and easy to navigate set of work supports.

3. Make services available in locations that are convenient for families

Providing services and supports in the places where families already spend time—such as child care centers, libraries, schools, and pediatricians’ offices—makes it more likely that families will receive the essential services that they need.

For example, Project DULCE provides parents of infants with support in addressing stress, building resiliency, and developing a nurturing relationship with their young child, while simultaneously linking families to legal and other community resources—all during the course of standard well-child visits. An evaluation of Project DULCE has shown that the intervention contributes to improvements in preventive health care delivery and accelerated access to concrete supports, such as nutrition or utility assistance, among low-income families.

Safety-net programs that are flexible enough to meet the needs of families, are well-coordinated, and offered in environments that are comfortable and convenient are critical to ensuring that children can thrive at home with their families.



Apprenticeship Programs Are Leaving Out Women and People of Color. Here’s How to Fix That.

After 14 months of incarceration in a county jail in Mississippi, Tawyna Lundberg was released with only the clothes on her back and no place to go. Two years later, she is now a certified structural welder doing preventive maintenance for an HVAC company.  She owns a car, and she’s saving up to buy her first home.

Lundberg is one of more than 250 women who have successfully completed the Women in Construction (WinC) pre-apprenticeship program in Biloxi, Mississippi.  This eight-week program prepares low-income women for apprenticeships or other construction jobs—it covers everything from basic safety, construction math, and handling power tools, to workers’ rights and the history of the trades.

Like Lundberg, many of the women in WinC face significant barriers to employment, including histories of domestic violence, homelessness, lack of access to affordable, quality child care, or inadequate health care (Mississippi has refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act).  That’s why WinC provides case management services and child care through Early Head Start, in addition to traditional job training.

“The job training is sort of a jumping off point for so many people,” says Julie Kuklinski, the program’s director. “And our comprehensive services also help participants get where they want to go.”

For some graduates, WinC may launch them into an apprenticeship, which allows them to earn a wage while learning skills on the job and through classroom instruction. Research shows that apprenticeship raises worker productivity and leads to competitive wages—the average starting wage for someone who has completed an apprenticeship program is $50,000.

Pre-apprenticeship programs like WinC not only help marginalized workers gain economic security, they also help employers establish a pipeline for diverse, skilled workers.  But there are very few programs like it across the country. As a result, apprenticeship programs are often inaccessible to the people who would most benefit from them.

Apprenticeship programs are often inaccessible to the people who would most benefit from them.

For example, the construction industry offers many high-wage apprenticeships, but in 2013 just 2.1% of these apprentices were women. At the same time, women and people of color were overrepresented in the lowest-wage apprenticeship programs, where average earnings are less than $15 per hour.

Moreover, recent analysis by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) shows that apprenticeship programs are often less diverse than the occupations they ultimately serve.  This suggests that while people of color are employed in these occupations, they are less likely to receive training and obtain a credential—and therefore earn the same pay as those who complete an apprenticeship—for their work. It is not totally clear why women and people of color are underrepresented in apprenticeship programs, but discrimination in the hiring process and on the job likely play a role.

Historically, federal efforts to make apprenticeship programs more racially and gender diverse have had limited success. But that is beginning to change.

President Barack Obama recently set a national goal to double the number of apprenticeship programs over five years, and to increase opportunities for women and people of color to participate in them. To support this effort, the Administration and Congress have authorized $265 million in competitive grants for apprenticeships.

The DOL has also made achieving racial and gender diversity a priority of this grant-making process. And, for the first time since 1978, the agency has taken steps to modernize the Equal Opportunity Employment regulation that prohibits discrimination and requires affirmative action in apprenticeship programs. Given the very limited progress we have made on diversifying apprenticeships in the intervening decades, this is a critical regulatory fix.

But more must be done.

Congress should ensure that there is dedicated funding to help states and localities develop new and diverse pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs. Congress should also ensure that this funding is tied to achieving goals of increased participation by women and people of color, particularly in high-wage fields.

With thoughtful and targeted policy changes like these, we can ensure that all workers—regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or disability status—have a fair shot at a good job through an apprenticeship.