June 23, 2009

National Poverty News Roundup for 23 June

I don't usually start this news roundup with an opinion piece; in fact, I generally try to steer clear of pure opinion pieces when writing this roundup. But this op-ed by a community development worker in Minneapolis caught my eye because of his diagnosis of the problem of persistent poverty: "we have in our country a belief system that justifies inequality in America," he argues, since our dominant storyline for making sense of people's successes and failures is largely wrapped up with individual choices and individual responsibility. This individualist focus has all kinds of cultural and ideological sources, and it's not always a bad thing -- it would, for example, be a serious mistake to discount individual drive and determination in the story of Khadijah Williams, homeless for years and now heading to Harvard on an academic scholarship. Inspiring though Ms. Williams' story is, we should not allow ourselves the luxury of attributing poverty or homelessness in general to other people's failure to emulate her example.

A recent report from Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies (h/t: Oregon Housing Blog) on the state of housing in the United States, while looking ahead to some recovery in the housing market over the next decade to be fueled by the entry of "echo boomers" (whom others call "millennials" or "Generation Y") into home ownership, also offers this sobering observation:

Being able to afford housing at the 30-percent-of-income standard depends critically on having full-time, well-paying work. Earnings from full-time minimum wage jobs are simply not enough. Indeed, no American household earning the equivalent of the full-time minimum wage ($11,500) can afford a modest two bedroom apartment at the federal fair market rent.

Housing links to employment, which links to education, which links to transportation so that people can get education and get to potential jobs, and so on and so on. This kind of relational interconnectedness is precisely what the dominant storyline about individual choices has a difficult time coping with; it's hard to get a holistic view if one begins and ends with an individual-level perspective. Fortunately, some government agencies and programs are beginning to appreciate the multi-faceted nature of these social problems, and taking steps to improve coordination and collaboration. Inter-agency cooperation may just be the hidden "united" in President Obama's "United We Serve" initiative.

Of course, no policy initiative -- emergency food assistance, community vegetable gardens, or what have you -- is likely to succeed without good data optimized to local conditions. The Brookings Institution's MetroMonitor system graphically illustrates how much local variation there is when it comes to issues like homelessness and unemployment, while local testimonies and journalistic fact-finding missions can help to make the abstract statistics more concrete. But the point in all cases is to produce useful, useable data with which policymakers and activists can reckon. Along these lines, consider the intriguing suggestion by two economists that poverty statistics be revised to account for the "debt poor" -- those whose debt burden is such that they are barely keeping afloat even though their on-paper income is considerably higher than the federal poverty guidelines. They suggest that as many as 4 million more Americans would be classified as poor if the calculations were adjusted in this way. That's another sobering thought, even as some signs of economic recovery appear: how will recovery affect such borderline-poor individuals and families?

We know that sometimes our efforts have real impact; we should continually strive to make sure that we those efforts -- in coordination with those of others -- are working on the whole, multi-faceted, problem.

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