Poverty in U.S. is mainstream: Perhaps the social safety net should be strengthened

Poverty in U.S. is mainstream: Perhaps the social safety net should be strengthened

November 10th, 2013 in Opinion Times

Poverty is not what most of us think. And the myth vs. the reality is causing us as a nation to draft, pass and preserve poor policy.

The myth is that poverty affects only a few, and mostly in inner cities among people who aren't working hard enough. But Mark R. Rand, a researcher and professor of social welfare at Washington University, is a myth-buster.

Rand is the co-author of a forthcoming book called "Chasing the American Dream: Understanding what Shapes our Fortunes." Last week he wrote a commentary for the New York Times that offers a peek at his findings.

"My research indicates that nearly 40 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 60 will experience at least one year below the official poverty line" during those years of their lives, and 54 percent will spend a year at or near poverty, Rand writes.

The poverty line is $23,492 for a family of four.

"Even more astounding, if we add in related conditions like welfare use, near-poverty and unemployment, four out of five Americans will encounter one or more of these events," Rand wrote for the Times. He calls poverty "a mainstream event experienced by a majority of Americans."

Here's another myth-buster: The average time most people spend in poverty is fairly short - not the stereotype of the entrenched underclass.

According to the U.S. Census, poverty also is an equal-opportunity scourge: In 2012, nearly 10 percent of whites were living in poverty, 11.4 percent of Asians, 25.6 percent of Hispanics and 27 percent of blacks. Rural areas are not immune. From 2000 to 2009, Chattanooga's metropolitan statistical area - Hamilton, Marion and Sequatchie counties in Tennessee and Catoosa, Dade and Walker counties in Georgia - saw its number of high-poverty census tracts rise from four to nine. And Grundy County - which is nearly all white - has one of Tennessee's highest poverty rates. Four in 10 children there live in poverty.

What these facts show is that our policymakers should not be talking about safety nets as code words for "entitlement." Especially given that 21.8 percent of U.S. children under 18 live in poverty.

Yet Congress - especially the radical Republicans who like to wrap themselves in flags and family and apple pie - seems to be increasingly against anything that might strengthen the safety net for people who are impoverished for usually brief periods of their lives. Instead of strengthening the net, Congress is pulling away at the food-stamp and temporary-welfare-assistance threads of it.

Remember Rep. Paul Ryan said: "But we don't want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency..."

Actually, given the size of the poverty problem and the increasing income gap between the wealthiest 1 percent and the slumping income increases for the working poor and middle class, perhaps we need to expand the net to something that is a bit more hammock-sized.

The maximum weekly unemployment benefit in Tennessee is $275. In Georgia, it's $330, and in Alabama it's $265.

Food stamp benefits were just cut for 47 million Americans, and many in the GOP want the Affordable Care Act repealed. Many GOP governors turned down ACA money that would extend health-care coverage to some of their poorer citizens.

Now a new report has found that in more than half of states, it costs more to put an infant in a child-care center than to cover tuition and fees at a public college. And - oh, yeah - we made big cuts to Head Start, too.

Welfare enrollment, by the way, is down nearly 5 percent in Tennessee and down more than 10 percent in Georgia. In August 2013 the Tennessee Department of Human Services reported that the number of households receiving Families First (welfare) assistance was 51,735 and the average monthly cash benefit for participating families was $164.92, according to a department web page.

Don't worry. These folks are not getting too comfortable in Ryan's imaginary hammock of entitlements. These folks are falling straight through.