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Ways of the World

Carol Stone, business economist & active Episcopalian, brings you "Ways of the World". Exploring business & consumers & stewardship, we'll discuss everyday issues: kids & finances, gas prices, & some larger issues: what if foreigners start dumping our debt? And so on. We can provide answers & seek out sources for others. We'll talk about current events & perhaps get different perspectives from what the media says. Write to Carol. Let her know what's important to you:

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Poverty: A Social Issue as Well as an Economic One

Poverty. We might describe it as not having enough money to assure adequate shelter and "three squares a day" for your household. This is a condition generated by the economy, then, right? And with the current bad economy, poverty has increased. Well, yes. But "poverty" is more than this simplistic description, as we've found in some recent explorations of numerical evidence about who is poor and why.

Certainly, the current economic conditions have led to greater poverty. In data for 2009 published last month by the Census Bureau[1], another 3.7 million people fell into that category, bringing the total number to 43.6 million, amounting to 14.3% of the total population. The 2008 figure was 39.8 million, 13.2% of the population.

This sense of being "in poverty" is a specific designation, based on the income required to feed your family. The Census Bureau conducts an annual survey of some 100,000 people asking about income, job status and characteristics of your household, among other items. Some years ago, similar kinds of government survey work indicated that low-income families needed to spend about 30% of their income on food in order to maintain a "nutritious" diet. So price data were collected and the cost of such a diet was calculated, then multiplied by 3 to obtain the minimum income needed to cover that and other family needs. Through the years, this threshold income level has been adjusted in line with inflation. In 2009, it came to $21,954 for a family of four.

Certainly, if you did not work, your chances of being "in poverty" are fairly significant. Last year, people over age 16 who did not work constituted somewhat over a quarter of the total population and more than one-fifth of them, 22.7%, were in poverty. This share is half again as high as that for the total population. [The Census Bureau and the Labor Department count eligible workers beginning at age 16.] In contrast, among people who worked, the poverty rate was just under 7%, half of the rate for the total population.

The bigger story with poverty lies in the shape of families. People, including both adults and children, who live in a family where there are two parents also see low poverty: 7-1/4% last year, a number also about half the rate for the total population. But people in families headed by a single woman face poverty at a 32.5% rate, that is, nearly one-third of those women and children are in poverty. These people, 14.7 million of them in 2009, constitute 34% of all those in poverty even as they are just less than 15% of the population. Tough stuff. And that's whether somebody in the family works or not. For those in which no one does work, the poverty rate is a whopping – pardon the informal expression – 71.5%, making this almost a defining characteristic of poverty. If even one person works part-time, this drops to slightly above 50%. Clearly work pays, but in every household work situation – one full-time worker, two full-time workers, two part-time workers, and so on – the rates are markedly higher if the household is headed by a single woman rather than by a married couple or a single man.

When we first saw this, we thought, oh well, to fight poverty, just encourage people to make marriage commitments, to form this mutual relationship of respect and support. It's obviously crucial to the economic well-being of the entire household. That's easy for us to say. Some of you who are acquainted with policies and actions in this arena will know that social service programs to this end have indeed been tried, and they do help some. But the problem is more complicated than our simple recipe, "encourage marriage". A study described in a recent volume of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science[2] outlines the conundrum: young women who were interviewed by the writers in fact valued marriage and understood its importance. But they could not see the men in their communities as people who would yield up the kind of respect and support they thought would be necessary. They weren't about to enter into a committed relationship with those men.

We don't have an answer to this. We are aware of a number of initiatives, both private and government funded, on the local, state and national levels, which focus on young men (14-21 years of age) who have fathered children but do not live in the same household. Such programs assist young dads by encouraging them to continue their education, finding work so that they can provide some financial support and helping them to become emotionally involved in the lives of their children, from whom they may be estranged because of difficult relationships with the mothers.

We could also define "poverty" in a different way. Now many years ago, writer George Gilder spoke of it not in terms of current numerical income, but in terms of awareness of opportunity and willingness to seize such opportunities or at least strive for them. If people were genuinely poor, he suggested, it was because they could not conceptualize that there might be a way out. On the other hand, even if their incomes were low, they might not be impoverished if they could see that there are ways to improve their lives and if they then reached toward that improvement. The entire issue of The Annals we reference above takes this kind of approach in wanting to connect policymakers and scholarly elites to the culture of the people who are "in poverty." We hope they've made some headway.

[1] Carmen DeNavas-Walt, Bernadette D. Proctor and Jessica C. Smith. Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2009. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Bureau of the Census, September 2010.

[2] Kathryn Edin and Marie Kefalas. Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2005. Discussed in Small, Harding & Lamont. "Reconsidering Culture and Poverty", The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Volume 629, May 2010, page 12.

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Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Election Day: A Sacred Occasion

We are hard at work on an article about the latest poverty data that the U.S. Census Bureau released a couple of weeks ago. Before we get to that, though, we feel compelled to pause and take notice of the current election season. We can't remember a noisier "mid-term" election campaign. Each of you has some collection of contests to consider and make a commitment on. There's much "throw-the-bums-out" sentiment, and whichever side of that you are on, there's a clarion call to pay attention to issues and people and make a choice.

Two comments to that end. If a candidate argues that they want to "cut government spending", ask or try to find out how they might intend to do that. What programs will they cut? How will they reform entitlements? The specifics of their answers may not actually matter right now; what matters is whether they've done some careful study to find concrete approaches to this nearly imponderable situation. It's not a time for platitudes. Also, think yourselves about what it is you want government to do. What is distinctively a government role and what can be left to private institutions or causes? In other words, what are your own criteria for the appropriate functions of government?

In this light, here is a prayer, a brief litany, from the Book of Common Prayer (page 821). We quoted the final paragraph of this two years ago, just on the eve of that election. In reviewing that post, we note the point made at the time by the Rev. Stephen Muncie, Rector of Grace Church Brooklyn Heights. Election day is a "sacred occasion", he said, "a day set aside" for us to make known our choices about our governments. Blessings on all of us as we do this, and thanks, too, that we have the privilege, without fear or intimidation, of voting the way we each believe is right.
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For Sound Government
O Lord our Governor, bless the leaders of our land, that we may be a people at peace among ourselves and a blessing to other nations of the earth.
Lord, keep this nation under your care.

To the President and members of the Cabinet, to Governors of States, Mayors of Cities, and to all in administrative authority, grant wisdom and grace in the exercise of their duties.
Give grace to your servants, O Lord.

To Senators and Representatives, and those who make our laws in States, Cities, and Towns, give courage, wisdom, and foresight to provide for the needs of all our people, and to fulfill our obligations in the community of nations.
Give grace to your servants, O Lord.

To the Judges and officers of our Courts give understanding and integrity, that human rights may be safeguarded and justice served.
Give grace to your servants, O Lord.

And finally, teach our people to rely on your strength and to accept their responsibilities to their fellow citizens, that they may elect trustworthy leaders and make wise decisions for the well‑being of our society; that we may serve you faithfully in our generation and honor your holy Name.
For yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. Amen.

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