Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Thinking About Poverty, Part 1

This is the first of a two part article.

Part 1: Inequities and Child Poverty

Starting Over, 1935 by Dorothea Lange

People don't really like to think about poverty, let alone talk about it. I'd go so far as to say many people simply ignore it. Too depressing, I guess. For those of us that have, it seems as if turning a blind eye to the have-nots is all too easy. It's definitely less painful, if you're a person with even a modicum of conscience. But looking around these days, I think we're getting to the point where we need to talk openly about the homeless, the poor, the working poor and what is of absolutely no help to any of those groups: blaming them instead of coming up with some kind of meaningful plan. Sometimes, I think that as a people, and likely eventually as a planet, we need to start over and perhaps see things from different perspectives on the issue of poverty and its causes and responsibilities. What steps, seemingly random or calculated, have set a segment of the population on the path into poverty or assure that the impoverished stay poor.

Not everybody shrinks from talking frankly about poverty. Last week, I read an impassioned blog post by one of my favorite authors of fiction, Seanan McGuire. An author of fantasy, her post was pure non-fiction advocacy. It isn't the first time that she's stopped me in my tracks with one of her posts, either. She's written more than a few on her blog that cut through all the (excuse the English) bullshit and strike at the heart of what it was like growing up poor, bullied, and so bright that every indignity of what you were living was fully and painfully absorbed. She's processed her experiences in an insightful way for those of us who haven't quite walked that same path but ought to spend more time thinking about such paths if we are to be decent human beings.  Her post last Friday, titled The Digital Divide, was about how many Americans cannot afford e-Readers, and that printed paper books must not be allowed to be die out because it effectively means that books will become all but inaccessible to many impoverished Americans. In her powerful post she speaks poignantly about what living in poverty and struggling to acquire books to read was like for her. (She is now a best-selling, Campbell/Hugo Award-winning author.) How, she asks, will our future generations of young people too poor to afford those light and sleek e-Readers or too easily robbed of them even if they had them, read? How indeed, I wonder. Because reading is knowledge and knowledge was supposed to be a path out of the hell that is poverty. As Seanan McGuire eloquently puts it, e-Books dominating the publication market now represent, in her mind, a deepening of the social and economic inequalities and threaten to become a barrier to the access of knowledge, enjoyment, and simple escape, for the poor.

Driving the idea of a digital divide still deeper in my mind was a link on Sociological Images, forwarded to me over the weekend by Cynical Nymph. It shows an image of a job posting in QR (Quick Response code). QR codes are those little square images you've probably seen in catalogs and ads. You scan the image with your phone by snapping a picture and details embedded in that image lead you, by way of a QR application, to a uniform resource locator (URL) with information. Great plan but in this instance that job listing is only accessible to those looking for jobs who are also fortunate enough to own smartphones. Steve Grimes, who found the image, also remarks on a growing reliance on technology that only the not-impoverished can afford. (Need a job? Hey, don't be so poor you don't have a smartphone with internet access and a QR reader app, okay? If you don't have a smartphone, this job isn't for you. Really, not smart of you not to have the money for that smartphone and its data package. Don't you be poor, you job-needer, you.)

QR code job listing, from Cyborgology

McGuire didn't just talk about the digital divide, though. She talks about what I've been surprised more people haven't been shouting about in the past week: the societal divide, as in wow, at least 15.1% of the population is living now in poverty in America and is that even really an accurate number?

I had posted a link, and even an image, about that 15.1% statistic on that my personal FB page (with about 300 friends) about a week ago and there were no takers. Not a single comment. I had also read a post by Suzy Khimm on Ezra Klein's WonkBlog at the Washington Post, in which she pointed out that the National Academy of Sciences estimates indicate that poverty is significantly higher than the Census Bureau estimates because the metrics the US Census uses to gauge poverty are so out of date. Some new methodology estimates from the NAS suggest the rate is higher, perhaps closer to 16% but other metrics say it's lower. Still, even if the poverty level in this country is merely 15.1%, it's a frightening figure. However, if we look at Census estimates of childhood poverty, the rate is stunning: 22% of Americans under the age of 18 are living in poverty. As someone advocating for child welfare, that is a stunning statistic to me. More than one in every five children in the USA is living in poverty. I had an article about that figure on my personal Facebook page and it didn't garner a single comment, either, although three people commented on my Bright Nepenthe Facebook page posting, including the former head of the Guardian ad Litem program here in Miami, who said that she recalled that in the 1980's it was one in four. I checked but the only figures I can see are those at which show that at its peak in 1983, child poverty was pretty much what it is now- 22%. But surprisingly it was equally bad in 1993-94. What is interesting though, rather than just looking at the number of children living in poverty, is the comparative distribution of income relative to the poverty line over the past thirty years. While the number of children living in extreme poverty and below the poverty level but not in extreme poverty has increased from 17.9% in 1980 to 20.1% in 2009, the number of children ages 0-17 living in high and very high income homes has increased dramatically, from around 21% in 1980 to around 40% in 2009. Low income (defined as a family of four at roughly twice the poverty income level or less) and medium income families have dropped sharply, from 65% of all children in 1980, to about 52% in 2009. While some families may have gotten better off in the past thirty years, the poor largely stayed poor. The increasingly stratified population was still, as of the measures in 2009, skewed toward children living better. But the middle economic class for children was thinning. In fact, the most current figures from the National Center for Children in Poverty state that in addition to the high level of children in poverty, they estimate 42% of all children now live in low income families, indicating a pronounced shift away from middle incomes is occurring, giving credence to the whole income gap and and growing perception of inequity in this country.

Anyway, as a voracious childhood reader and avid buyer of used books, I really grokked what Seanan McGuire was saying in her recent post. Eliminating print books potentially steals something from already poor children. Her recollections about being poor and wanting to read also made me recall an earlier post of hers, in which I'll never forget her mentioning that in her family, they were so poor that ketchup really was considered a vegetable. The memory of that post, and its reference to how you perceive food when you're poor, takes me to a few other things I've been reading.

In 2011, as the economy and joblessness have worsened, how many kids are going to sleep at night hungry? How many don't know where their next meal would come from? We don't really know, do we? (And in general, feeding the poor or homeless has become an increasingly embittered topic, especially in my state of Florida.)

First off, going back to, they have this table that talks about food insecurity, which basically means not knowing where your next meal is coming from, or if you'll even have one that night. From 1995, when they began tracking this figure, to 2009, the percentage of children ages 0-17 living in households with overt food insecurity increased from 19.4 to 23.2%. Not all that sharp an increase, unless you're a hungry child, of course. Food insecurity for children in low income and poverty income households increased from 70% in 1995 to 85% of those households in 2009. And among those living at 200% of the poverty level, surprisingly food insecurity increased from 4.8% of households to 9.1% of households, a pronounced increase in the number of children who, though not living in poverty or even low income families, didn't have the security of knowing where their next meal was coming from. We'll revisit that table briefly when considering the effects of education on poverty in Part 2 of Thinking About Poverty. 

But, as something for you to think about today, consider this: the 2009 estimate of the child population in this country was 74.5 million. The USDA's National School Lunch Program, which provides free or reduced cost lunches (in addition to free breakfast and free after school snacks to qualified students in programs through Child Developmental Services departments), estimated that in 2009 some 31 million children qualified for free or reduced cost lunches. Children living in households with less than 130% of the federally defined poverty level income for their family are entitled to free lunch. Children living in households with 130 - 185% of the poverty level income are entitled to reduced cost lunch. So here's the thought: in 2009, the total number of children living in poverty and low income households (defined as up to 199% of the poverty level income) was 41.7% of the population. That comes out to about 31 million, actually. Well, more like 31.4 million. But does that mean if you were in that unlucky sliver of low income families with incomes between 185% and 199% of the poverty level income, you didn't get a reduced cost lunch? Yes, it likely does. That's falling through the cracks of the system, right there.  It's quite possible to be poor even when you're not strictly speaking, in federal terms, living in poverty. It's possible to be poor and hungry.*

Current estimates for children in America: 22% live in poverty, 42% live in low income households.

Sharecroppers Children Gather Food by Dorothea Lange

Look for Part 2 tomorrow, where we will focus on the homeless, the poor, how we count them and one of the most disturbing comments on the homeless I've ever heard by an elected official. Of course, it was from right here in my own proud state of Florida.

*I have seen more than a few area public schools scramble trying to provide food for children who fall through those cracks. Teachers recognize when their students are hungry.  I have seen kind-hearted teachers who will bring extra food for a child who didn't qualify or whose qualifications have been delayed, as sometimes happens when a child enters the foster care system and the paperwork for a free breakfast and lunch was not completely properly. I have also personally known children in foster care who were told by foster parents that they could not eat those meals at home on school days and who refused to provide those meals on the weekends. Foster children who feared a long, hungry weekend without those school meals. No kidding. Of course, when you see stuff like that, you report it. And hope the foster parent loses their license. But they don't always. If fact, one foster parent that I reported for not adequately feeding the three children in her care actually adopted a child after that report.

© Bright Nepenthe, 2011

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