Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Up from Poverty?

When Lyndon Johnson called for a War on Poverty, what he really meant was an all-out effort to eliminate it. But poverty is not an enemy. It's more like a neighborhood. You can't demolish it through head-on assault. You end up destroying the people who live there in the process.

For the next three days, we will discuss three strategies for rebuilding America so poverty isn't a part of the architecture any more.

Strategy 1: Family Economic Self-Sufficiency.

The amount of money that it takes to "escape poverty" according to the federal definition of poverty is so small, you wonder why so many are poor. The feds say that a family of three (typically a mother and her two children) are out of poverty if she earns more than $17,600 (roughly $8.75/hour for a full-time worker). Surely that's possible?

Possible, but unlikely. Consider. The federal minimum wage is $6.55/hour. The Massachusetts minimum wage, which is essentially tied for the highest in the country, is $8/hour. Neither one of these is as high as the poverty threshold. A minimum-wage worker can work full-time all year round and still not make nearly enough to get her family out of poverty. (And of course, many people work seasonally, or part-time. They have to try to survive on even less.)

Before we get people out of poverty, we need to get them up to poverty!

But is the poverty threshold really enough to live on? Actually, no. Family economic self-sufficiency (FESS) means earning a lot more than the federal poverty level, depending on the ages and needs of your family members and the cost of living where you are. The Crittenton Women's Union in Boston has provided us with an online "self-sufficiency calculator" so we can figure out the FESS level for any city in Massachusetts. For my home city of Somerville, for instance, what would it cost that three-person family to live?

Just for housing, child care, food, transportation, and health care expenses, plus a small amount of miscellaneous necessities, a Somerville resident with two children has to earn somewhere between $36,761 (if both her children are teens) to $95,284 (if both children are infants). That's at least $17.41/hour, and as much as $45.12/hour.

Go and look through the want ads. Ask around at Human Resource offices. How many job openings are there for jobs that pay that much? There aren't enough to raise the one out of eight families that live in poverty up to the self-sufficiency level. And that level is bare bones. It doesn't allow savings for college, or even for a rainy day.

That's why:
  1. We need to help people get the education and training to qualify for the high-paying jobs that exist.
  2. We need to make sure people get all the public benefits they're entitled to, from food stamps to subsidized housing, so their need for income drops.
  3. Even if we do all that, it will not be enough. Family economic self-sufficiency is a strategy for building up one family at a time. We need a strategy for developing a society without poverty.
More on that tomorrow!

No comments: