Safety Net

See Poverty Rates in Your State & Congressional District

TalkPoverty exists in part to demonstrate that our nation already knows what works to dramatically reduce poverty. All we lack is the political will to do it.

Part of this work involves identifying areas where poverty is prevalent and finding out communities are particularly affected. This week, we learned that the national poverty rate fell slightly in 2013, with particular gains among children. However, we know that the national poverty rate doesn’t tell the whole story. We continue to see the same regional disparities in poverty rates, as many states (and policymakers) refuse to make the investments that this country needs to fight poverty.

In order to make the Census data more easily accessible and usable, we’ve updated our interactive map. We believe data is a key tool to hold policymakers accountable and to promote policies that we know can reduce poverty.  You can use these data to write letters to the editor, email or call your elected officials, and share your personal story.

Using our interactive map, you can see the overall poverty rate in your state as well as state poverty rates for women, children, African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanic/Latino Americans. Starting with this year’s data, you can also see the poverty rate in your congressional district, including child poverty and poverty rates by race/ethnicity and gender.

NOTE: The 2013 state and congressional district-level data distributed by the Census’s American Community Survey include rates for demographic subgroups (African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and Latino Americans). The poverty rates for these demographic sub-groups should be interpreted with care because due to relatively small sample sizes for these groups, there are sometimes wide margins of error around the calculated poverty rates. This is particularly true in low-population states and districts. The rates for sub-groups should therefore be taken as estimates.

Here is some of the data you can find:

Which states have the highest overall poverty rates?

Mississippi 24.05%
New Mexico 21.93%
Louisiana 19.76%
Arkansas 19.68%
Georgia 18.97%

Which states have the lowest overall poverty rates?

New Hampshire 8.70%
Alaska 9.33%
Maryland 10.12%
Connecticut 10.73%
Hawaii 10.85%

Which states have the highest child poverty rates?

Mississippi 33.70%
New Mexico 30.95%
Arkansas 28.63%
Louisiana 27.43%
South Carolina 27.25%

Which states have the lowest child poverty rates?

New Hampshire 9.71%
North Dakota 11.77%
Alaska 11.79%
Hawaii 12.68%
Wyoming 12.93%

Make sure to visit our interactive map to learn more!

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Safety Net

4 Things Communities must do to become a Promise Zone

As the federal government invests in nutrition, health, education, and job-training programs that keep families out of poverty, complementary investments to strengthen high-poverty communities across the country are also important. Fortunately, over the past several years, the Obama administration has invested in low-income urban, rural, and tribal communities, and it increasingly understands what it takes to drive and support local innovation. Still, many local leaders are faced with the challenge of addressing some of the United States’ most complex social problems with limited resources at their disposal.

These high-poverty communities suffer from problems such as inferior housing and infrastructure, poor health outcomes, failing schools, and little to no economic opportunity. According to analysis by Center for American Progress experts, income inequality and low social mobility place a downward drag on national prosperity, underscoring how the strength of our communities is inextricably tied to the success of the United States as a whole. The Obama administration’s Promise Zones initiative understands this reality and strives to ensure that a child’s ZIP code does not determine the outcomes of his or her life. The initiative aims to revitalize high-poverty communities through comprehensive, evidence-based strategies and by helping local leaders navigate federal funding.

The strength of our communities is inextricably tied to the success of the United States as a whole

Today, the administration announced that it is receiving applications for the second round of Promise Zones designees. “As a former mayor of an urban Promise Zone community, I have a unique appreciation for the talent, passion and the vision that local leaders offer when working to turn their communities around,” said HUD Secretary Julián Castro. “Promise Zones are about giving folks who have been underserved for far too long the opportunity to build stronger neighborhoods and more prosperous lives. At HUD, we’re honored to give other communities the opportunity to transform their futures so this work can continue across the country.” The deadline for submitting Promise Zones applications is November 21, 2014.

The initiative launched in January 2014 with Promise Zones in San Antonio, Texas; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Los Angeles, California; southeastern Kentucky; and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

These neighborhoods received priority access to federal resources to support job creation; increase economic security; expand educational opportunities; increase access to quality, affordable housing; and improve public safety. The Obama administration also hopes to extend tax incentives to private businesses for hiring employees and investing in the zones.

Over the next two years, up to 15 more communities will be designated as Promise Zones, presenting an opportunity for public, private, nonprofit, and philanthropic leaders to work more collaboratively with both one another and federal officials to leverage resources and invest in proven strategies. As leaders and groups come together to plan their Promise Zones applications, here are four key components of the program they should keep in mind.

1. Community-driven efforts

Promise Zones are place-based initiatives designed to support communities in the innovative work they are already doing. Local leaders drive the direction of the effort, while the federal government serves as a catalyst by providing critical resources, facilitating partnerships, and building capacity.

For example, community and business leaders in the Choctaw Nation will focus on investing in basic infrastructure, including water and sewer systems, which have been identified as a serious impediment to economic development. In Philadelphia, leaders from Drexel University will focus on improving education quality through professional development for teachers, college access and readiness for middle school and high school students, and parental engagement.

2. Comprehensive strategies

There is no silver-bullet policy to address the many challenges facing high-poverty communities. These communities need a comprehensive set of strategies that equip youth and adult residents with the skills they need to prosper—and that ensure opportunities for success in their neighborhoods.

That’s why the Promise Zones initiative offers designees priority access to a range of revitalization resources through the U.S. Departments of Education, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, and Agriculture, to name a few. Applicants should have a strong vision and a well-integrated strategy to achieve it. The initiative was inspired in part by examples such as the East Lake Foundation’s work to transform the East Lake community in Atlanta, Georgia—a high-poverty neighborhood that suffered from blight and crime. Local leaders developed a strategy to tackle poverty by jointly addressing housing, education, workforce development, and health services. Today, violent crime is down by 95 percent, families receiving public assistance have seen their incomes quadruple, and the neighborhood’s school is the top-performing elementary school in the city.

3. Outcomes at the systems level

The Obama administration is looking to support efforts aimed at community-wide outcomes—for example, improving the educational system that serves all students in a community, rather than a single program that helps a fraction of students. The goal of the Promise Zones initiative is to take systemic action, which requires stakeholders to create common goals, follow shared metrics, and redirect resources accordingly.

For example, the Los Angeles Promise Zone is tracking 23 different indicators at the individual, family, and household levels for 10 core outcomes, such as improved academic performance in schools and the transformation of schools into community hubs where families can access their resources. This data will help the city and its partners ensure they are on track to reach their goals and course correct when necessary.

4. Data-driven results

In their proposals, Promise Zones applicants are required to describe the evidence that supports the work they plan to continue or undertake. In addition, communities must manage, share, and use data for evaluation and continuous improvement; this is critical for strategies with less supporting evidence than others. This is particularly helpful to ensure that stakeholders are focused on their shared goals. Furthermore, these data will help the federal government assess the effectiveness of local efforts and direct future funding toward the strategies that have been proven to work.

While many high-poverty communities could benefit from the Promise Zones designation, the process of bringing together the strengths and resources of a community to set clear and shared goals is critical, regardless of whether a site is ultimately selected for the initiative. As the next round of applications gets underway, communities have an opportunity to coalesce around their most intractable problems and to redefine their relationship with the federal government.

 

 

 

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Safety Net

Disability Is a Cause and Consequence of Poverty

Disability is both a cause and consequence of poverty.

It is a cause because it can lead to job loss and reduced earnings, barriers to education and skills development, significant additional expenses, and many other challenges that can lead to economic hardship.

It is also a consequence because poverty can limit access to health care and preventive services, and increase the likelihood that a person lives and works in an environment that may adversely affect health.

Half of all working age adults who experience at least one year of poverty have a disability.

The result? Poverty and disability go hand in hand. The poverty rate for working-age people with disabilities is nearly two and a half times higher than that for people without disabilities. Indeed, recent research finds that half of all working age adults who experience at least one year of poverty have a disability, and nearly two-thirds of those experiencing longer-term poverty have a disability. People with disabilities are also much more likely to experience material hardships—such as food insecurity; inability to pay rent, mortgage, and utilities; or not being able to get needed medical care—than people without disabilities at the same income levels. The same goes for families caring for a child with a disability.

In addition to income poverty, individuals with disabilities are also nearly twice as likely to lack even modest precautionary savings in case of an unexpected expense or other financial shock. Fully 70 percent of individuals with disabilities responded that they “certainly” or “probably” could not come up with $2,000 to meet an unexpected expense, compared to 37 percent of individuals without disabilities.

Yet the intersection of disability and poverty is too rarely discussed. In fact, until recently the U.S. Census Bureau’s annual report detailing income, poverty, and health insurance coverage didn’t even include poverty rates for people with disabilities. It does now, and the data released earlier this week put the poverty rate for working-age people with disabilities at 28.4 percent in 2013, compared to 12.4 percent for those without disabilities.

Yesterday the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, chaired by Senator Tom Harkin, took up this issue in a hearing and a report based on 400 interviews with people with disabilities who are struggling on the brink.

Toya, a woman in her thirties with Cerebral Palsy who was interviewed for the report, describes needing to buy new shoes each month because of her walking pattern. Another woman interviewed talks about having to purchase “special clothes because of my body distortions, and lots of day-to-day adaptive equipment that insurance doesn’t cover.” Anne, who is blind, relates that while she’d like to work a second job, the additional time it takes her to get ready for and take transportation to and from work makes it impossible.

Many of the interviewees discuss a lack of reliable accessible transportation. A man in his 30s with a physical disability describes his struggles with para-transit: “My work is located outside my local zone which requires long wait times at transfer stops. To go to work it could take me 2 hours-plus to travel 9 miles and I have to call the day before to arrange this at 6:00 a.m.” The difficulty of finding affordable accessible housing is mentioned frequently as well. One woman describes her wait to obtain affordable housing through the “Section 8” program: “In order to find housing, you’re put on a list that is years long. I keep having to call them and see if somebody died and make sure my name stays on the list.”

Interviewees also discuss restrictive and outdated asset limits in the Supplemental Security Income program, which provides modest income support to individuals with significant disabilities and very low incomes and assets. Individuals are prohibited from having more than $2,000 in assets—nearly unchanged from the original level set in 1972. Had the asset limit been indexed to inflation when the program was established, it would be more than $8,500 today. As one woman put it: “The requirements of SSI make it difficult to save money, such as for medical emergencies, internship experiences, or purchasing expensive equipment.”

It’s critical to note the progress that has been made in the past several decades. The Americans with Disabilities Act, enacted nearly 25 years ago, prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability and guarantees that people with disabilities have “equal opportunity” to participate in American life. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), enacted the same year, requires that students with disabilities be provided a “free, appropriate public education” just like all other students. The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act expands access for people with disabilities to education and training programs, programs for transition-age youth and young adults transitioning to adulthood, vocational rehabilitation, and more.

But as Chairman Harkin noted at yesterday’s hearing, much work remains. In order to break the link between poverty and disability, it’s imperative that disability be expressly contemplated as part of a broader antipoverty agenda, not as a separate issue or afterthought.

Policymakers have a number of policy solutions at their fingertips that could make a real difference today. Expanding Medicaid would make it possible for more low-income Americans to access preventive care, and reduce financial strain for low-income individuals with disabilities. Ensuring paid leave protection and paid sick days would benefit both workers with disabilities and workers who care for family members with disabilities. Raising the minimum wage would boost the incomes of many workers with disabilities, who are especially likely to work in low-wage jobs. Likewise, boosting the Earned Income Tax Credit for workers without dependent children would benefit many workers with disabilities, who are less likely to have children.

In addition, investing in affordable, accessible housing would enable more people with disabilities to obtain safe and stable housing and live independently. And investing in accessible transportation would enable more people with disabilities to take jobs that they currently can’t get to and from without spending hours in transit. We also need to update the SSI asset limits and improve the program’s work rules so that beneficiaries can keep more of their earnings and save for the future. Similarly, simplifying the work rules in the Social Security Disability Insurance program would make it easier for beneficiaries to test their capacity to work.

These are just first steps, but they would go a long way to ensuring that poverty and disability no longer go hand in hand.

Author’s note: The Center for American Progress’ Poverty to Prosperity team is exploring policy solutions to strengthen and modernize our nation’s safety net to reflect 21st century realities, and to better facilitate economic mobility for families on the brink.

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Safety Net

Activists and Scholars Respond to the New Poverty Data

This week, the U.S. Census Bureau revealed that there was a statistically significant decline in poverty last year.  It is the first decline since 2006, and just the second since 2000.

Worth celebrating, right?

Hardly. While the reduction in poverty might be significant from a statistical perspective, it’s not from a people’s perspective: 15 percent of Americans lived in poverty in 2012; 14.5 percent in 2013—more than 45 million Americans lived in poverty in each of those years.  Further, historic levels of income inequality remain unchanged, with incomes flat for low- and middle-income Americans.

What is most frustrating, tragic, infuriating—pick your adjective—about this status quo that wastes so much human potential, is the fact that we know the kinds of policies and actions that would not only reduce poverty, but reduce it dramatically.

TalkPoverty.org asked a group of scholars and activists what we need to do to achieve Census numbers that we can truly get excited about.  Their responses reveal some of the rigorous research that should inform our priorities and policy choices, and also widespread activism that isn’t waiting on an anti-poverty movement, it’s building one.

Hilary Hoynes: “Remember the successes and get behind policies that work.”
Sarita Gupta: ‘What are you doing in this movement and can you do more?’
Dr. Deborah Frank: How Poverty Affects Children’s Health
Deepak Bhargava: Change this Broken System
Valerie Wilson: ‘Policymakers have been slow to use data to inform their agenda’
Sally Steenland: ‘Infusing grassroots protests and political advocacy with righteous indignation’
Alice O’Connor: Half the Battle
Deirdra Reed: ‘This is not your grandma’s skid-row poverty’

Hilary Hoynes: “Remember the successes and get behind policies that work.”

The Census poverty release this week contained some good news – particularly notable is that poverty rates fell significantly for children – but overall poverty rates remain high relative to their levels prior to the Great Recession.

We have the data to know “what works” against poverty and inequality—and that our policies truly matter.

Looking over the longer term, poverty can be best described as remaining stubbornly high over the past decades. Some conclude that this lack of progress in our fight against poverty implies a failure of our safety net. However, this misses the important countervailing force of stagnant or declining wages; in this light, the lack of a rise in poverty over the past 20 years represents (sadly) somewhat of an achievement for public policy. We have the data to know “what works” against poverty and inequality—and that our policies truly matter. A federal minimum wage increase to $10.10 would lift 4.6 million people out of poverty. The Earned Income Tax Credit, together with the Child Tax Credit, lifts roughly 4.7 million children or 9 million persons above the poverty line annually; SNAP raises 2.2 million children or 5 million persons above poverty. Increasing incomes for these families leads to improvements in health and children’s well-being.

We need to remember the successes and get behind policies that work.

Hilary Hoynes is a Professor of Public Policy and Economics and holds the Haas Distinguished Chair in Economic Disparities at the Goldman School of Public Policy at University of California, Berkeley.

Sarita Gupta: ‘What are you doing in this movement and can you do more?’

The fight against poverty is already here, it’s happening, and it can work if we challenge ourselves to focus on the real and immediate solutions that help everyday working people create a pathway to economic stability.

The good news is, we’ve already begun to do that in cities and states across the country. In Massachusetts, we passed a domestic workers bill of rights designed to protect home care workers against poverty wages and working conditions. In San Francisco, we’re working to pass a retail workers bill of rights aimed at tackling the erratic, on-call scheduling practices that keep hourly and shift workers in a constant cycle of financial unpredictability. In Illinois, Connecticut and Oregon, we’re piloting a fair-share fee legislation that requires businesses that cheat their workers out of wages to pay a fee to offset their role in keeping employees in poverty.

So we’re making strides, but there’s still so much work to be done if we are to create more good jobs that pay good wages, invest in our communities, and strengthen the voice that every day people have in our democracy.  We need you, the reader, to ask yourself what you are doing in this movement and can you do more?  That’s how we’ll achieve the change we seek.

Sarita Gupta is the executive director of Jobs With Justice, an organization leading the fight for workers’ rights and an economy that benefits everyone.

Dr. Deborah Frank: How Poverty Affects Children’s Health

To me, a pediatrician for 38 years, I know the 2013 poverty numbers represent names and faces, including the poorest Americans – infants and toddlers and their families. Doctors know that poverty stacks the odds against children in the womb with poor nutrition and high levels of stress hormones, altering the intrauterine environment and leading to early deliveries and low birth weight.

Poverty’s toxicity does not end at birth. At Children’s HealthWatch, my pediatric and public health colleagues and I have conducted extensive research since 1998 on children up to their fourth birthday in five urban hospitals across the country.  We and other researchers showed that children in families who experience the most basic level of material hardships associated with poverty — not enough nutritious food, inadequate or inconsistent access to lighting, heating or cooling, and unstable housing — suffer negative health and development effects, which constrain the next generation’s opportunities to live healthy lives as successful participants in education and the workforce.

Children in poverty cannot wait for the slow recovery from the 2009 recession to finally arrive. We need to expand and protect programs to keep all our children nourished, warm and safely housed. It is not the federal deficit I worry about, but the preventable and treatable deficits in the bodies and brains of America’s young children.

Dr. Deborah Frank is the Founder and Principal Investigator at Children’s HealthWatch, and professor of Child Health and Well-being in the Department of Pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine.

Deepak Bhargava: Change this Broken System

It is outrageous that in the richest country in the history of the world, the vast majority of people are never more than a degree away from poverty.  New data shows that a good job has the power to move that needle in the right direction for children.

On Tuesday, the Census Bureau released data showing the child poverty rate has decreased for the first time since 2000. In 2013, enough parents were able to find full-time, year-round work to help 1.4 million children escape poverty.

At the Center for Community Change, the communities we work with know that the best anti-poverty program is a job that pays enough to allow families to make ends meet. Unfortunately, our broken labor market delivers too few jobs and unfair pay in exchange for hard work. We live in a system where no matter how much money people’s work brings into their company, they get paid as little as the CEO can get away with, and when they work harder, the increased wealth they produce goes right into the CEO’s pocket or company coffers.

Some of the people we are working with to change this broken system include carwashers in New York City; the formerly incarcerated in Texas; unemployed people in Washington, DC; and retail workers in Minnesota.  The Center for Community Change is working with grassroots groups fighting for access to good jobs and good wages in over 20 states.

People work in order to make the future brighter for their kids and more secure for their families.  America needs jobs that pay enough for people to earn a decent living and to have a decent life.

Deepak Bhargava is Executive Director of the Center for Community Change.



Valerie Wilson: ‘Policymakers have been slow to use data to inform their agenda’

We know that nearly 70 percent of the income of Americans in the bottom fifth is tied to work, either in the form of wages, employer-provided benefits, or tax credits that are dependent on work (such as the Earned Income Tax Credit).  We also know that in the past year, real hourly wages declined for all workers except those in the bottom 10 percent of the wage distribution, and that the increase for these low-wage workers was due to the states that raised their minimum wages.

This week’s Census report provides an update of our nation’s progress toward greater racial economic equality.  On the positive side, between 2012 and 2013, Latinos experienced a larger decline in poverty and a larger increase in median household income than any other group.  Much of the decline in poverty occurred among children – the poverty rate for Latino children is down 3.4 percentage points to 30.3 percent.  But the rate of poverty among Latino children is still 2.8 times higher than that of whites.  Still,  that isn’t the worst news from the Census.  While child poverty declined for nearly all groups of children, it stands at an astounding 38.3 percent for African American children – 3.6 times the rate for white children.

Reducing child poverty is as much about increasing employment and wages as anything else.  Unfortunately, progress toward greater racial equity in either of these areas has been painfully slow during the recovery, and policymakers have been slow to use data to inform their agenda.

Valerie Wilson is director of the Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy (PREE), a nationally recognized source for expert reports and policy analyses on the economic condition of America’s people of color.

Sally Steenland: ‘Infusing grassroots protests and political advocacy with righteous indignation’

The new poverty numbers released by the government show no statistical change in the number of Americans living in poverty: 45.3 million. That number is way too high. And, although it’s been stuck there for several years, we know how to reduce poverty in this country—with policies that make a measurable difference in people’s lives, like raising the minimum wage, providing paid leave and paid sick days, expanding Medicaid, and investing in child care and pre-K programs.

Another thing many of us know:  faith advocacy organizations are on the front lines working to reduce poverty. Faith communities see the human suffering that comes from living in poverty, along with the economic and social injustices that lead to being poor.  That is why faith-based groups are infusing grassroots protests and political advocacy with righteous indignation across the country.

Moral Mondays is fighting for a living wage, fair labor practices, Medicaid expansion, and other policies that recognize human dignity and the importance of family. Interfaith Worker Justice is leading the charge against wage theft and setting up worker centers across the country to fight for workers’ rights.

Along with PICO, NETWORK, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and others, faith-based advocates give each of us an opportunity to help reduce poverty. Whether we get involved on an individual, community, state, or national level, each of us can do our part and put our values into practice.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress

Alice O’Connor: Half the Battle

This week’s release of the predictably dire annual poverty statistics has provided yet another occasion to gin up the narrative of “big government failure” that blames “trillions” in social spending for fostering the behavior that makes and keeps people poor.  Liberal advocates have done a good job of countering that narrative, with evidence of just how much higher—roughly double—measured poverty would be without the legacy of increased social spending the War on Poverty helped to launch.

But today’s anti-poverty activists have also lost sight of the most powerful weapons unleashed by the Economic Opportunity Act (EOA), signed 50 years ago in August 1964.  One was macroeconomic policy.  The Council of Economic Advisers linked fighting poverty to its number one policy priority of pushing the economy to its full-employment growth potential—down from the unacceptably high 5.5% to 4% unemployment—which, when combined with robust anti-discrimination, minimum wage, and labor standards, would put workers in better position to combat poverty wages, and everyone in a better position to get a decent paying job.

The other was participatory democracy, embedded in the EOA’s mandate to assure “maximum feasible participation” among the poor in local community action agencies, but more importantly realized in the legacy of grassroots organizing and institution-building that empowered poor people to demand access to the educational and job opportunities, social and legal services, and political representation more affluent Americans had come to expect.

The War on Poverty certainly didn’t get everything right.  But the view it offers of the battlefield, then and now, does tell us where and how much more broadly—beyond defending the safety net and raising the minimum wage—we need to set the sights of an economic justice agenda.

Author of Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy and the Poor in Twentieth Century U.S. History, Alice O’Connor is professor of history at the University of California Santa Barbara.


Deirdra Reed: ‘This is not your grandma’s skid-row poverty’

We should hold our elected officials accountable for their part in job creation and passing policies that support family-sustaining wages.

One in every seven women lives in poverty. This is not and cannot be thought of as your grandma’s “skid row” poverty. This is post-recession, soccer mom poverty. Look at your Facebook friends list and count.  Every seventh (or every one) of those women may be working full-time and still struggling to make ends meet.

I am a woman of color, a working mother (and self-declared Southern Belle). As working women, we should take the U.S. Census Bureau report as confirmation that the economic pressure we feel is real; and we should hold our elected officials accountable for their part in job creation and passing policies that support family-sustaining wages.

As a Senior Organizer with the Center for Community Change, I have been working with community-based groups all year to empower women like myself to band together as we fight for good jobs with good wages, the end of income inequality, and the chance to have a secure retirement future.

At North Carolina Fair Share, a group of women who are recently retired or close-to-retirement are organizing to protect and expand Social Security, with a new credit just for caregivers.

In Atlanta, 9 to 5 and the Racial Justice Action Center’s Women on the Rise program are organizing working-age women, most of whom are heads of households, around the way that poverty is criminalized. For example, for a service industry worker who’s stretching to make it to the end of the month, a parking ticket can turn into thousands of dollars in fines and an arrest warrant.   Someone with means would just pay the ticket. Someone without means could lose everything.

In Alabama, members of the Federation of Childcare Providers of Alabama (FOCAL), most of whom are women who provide childcare in their homes, are organizing to expand Medicaid to help the families that they serve.

I hope next year, our work will have had a big impact in reducing the poverty numbers.  And I hope you will join us.

Deirdra Reed is a Senior Organizer with the Center for Community Change.

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Media and Politics

New Poverty Numbers Remind Latinos: We Must Grow Our Power

Yesterday, the U.S. Census Bureau released 2013 numbers on poverty in the United States and it is a mixed bag: poverty levels in the U.S. are decreasing—but not nearly enough.  In fact, the changes are so minimal that they are not statistically significant for most groups.  The two positive changes in the numbers are for children and Latinos, both of whom saw decent decreases in terms of their poverty rates and total number of people in poverty.  But the fact remains that poverty levels have not gone back to prerecession numbers for any group, wages continue to be stagnant, and family income remains unchanged.

Let’s flesh this out: it’s worth a reminder that poverty is defined as living at or below the poverty line, which for a family of four in 2013 was $23,834. Yep, that is not a typo—there isn’t supposed to be a “6” where the “2” is. Not sure how anyone makes a living with less than $30K but that is another topic for another day.

Now back to the numbers: 14.5 percent of Americans lived in poverty in 2013—that represents more than 45 million people, including 13 million Latinos.  While this poverty rate is lower than in 2012, it is a decrease of only .5 percent.  Among Latinos the decrease was a respectable 2 percentage points—down from 25.6 percent in 2012 to 23.5 percent in 2013.

These poverty numbers are not a reality that we can’t change.

The Latino child poverty rate also fell for a third year in a row. In 2013, the poverty rate among Hispanic kids was 30.4 percent, compared to 33.8 in 2012 and 34.1 in 2011.  But it’s clear we still have a long way to go: there are 5.4 million Hispanic children in poverty, more than any other group; and our kids have among the highest poverty rates of any racial and ethnic group at more than 30 percent.

While the economy improved in 2013 that hasn’t translated into significantly better economic outcomes for the low-income workers or the middle class.   Median family income stayed virtually the same between 2012 and 2013, continuing its 14-year decline due in large part to stagnant wages.  Although income for Latinos did rise from $39,572 to 40,963 in 2013, it is still lower than the $43,025 that Hispanics earned in 2006.

It is also worth underscoring that millions of Latinos are working at poverty-level wages.  While the unemployment rate for Hispanics declined between September 2012 and August 2013—from 8.9 percent to 7.5 percent—more than 40 percent of Latino workers earn poverty level wages.

These poverty numbers are not a reality that we can’t change.  As my colleagues Rebecca Vallas and Melissa Boteach write there are policy solutions that can reverse these trends. For example, raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour would benefit 6.8 million Latinos; good jobs—with fair pay and benefits such as paid family and medical leave, and paid sick days—would also make a difference in lifting people out of poverty.  Moreover, key investments in education, job training and child care would improve the livelihoods of all Americans, including Latinos.   And let’s not forget immigration reform to help workers who are already contributing to this nation’s economy earn a good living that supports their families.

But Congress seems intent on making things worse. In 2013, this Congress enacted across-the-board cuts in education, job training, and child care services, alongside reductions in nutrition assistance, housing, and other vital programs for low-income families. Congress must change course and invest in job creation, pass comprehensive immigration reform, raise the minimum wage, and enact measures to improve the economic security of all families.

For Latinos the stakes are high.  While the reduction in poverty in our community is good news during an otherwise disappointing time (given the lack of movement on issues that we care about—like immigration reform), much work remains. This new set of numbers are yet another reminder that we need to grow our power and influence so that we elect leaders in Congress who will focus on creating and strengthening the ladder of opportunity for all Americans—including Latinos.

 

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