Poverty measure that goes beyond income or financial resources

How exactly to define poverty  is an ongoing conversation (earlier posts here and here) and here is another proposal that would include two additional dimensions:

If the point of measuring poverty is to capture well-being, we should reframe poverty as a form of social exclusion and deprivation. “Poverty has a wider meaning than lack of income. It’s not being able to participate in things we take for granted in terms of connection to society, but also crime, and life expectancy,” argues Rank. In an era when most deaths by guns are suicides, addiction rates are rising, and U.S. life expectancy is dropping and increasingly unequal by race and education level, capturing people’s well-being and designing solutions beyond material hardship is paramount.

Both of these dimensions have grounding in sociological discussions of poverty. The difference between absolute poverty and relative poverty covers similar ground to the idea of deprivation. There may be a minimum amount of resources someone needs to survive but this is different than comparing survival to normal or regular participation in a group or society. This is particularly compounded in today’s world where it is so easy for anyone – rich or poor – to at least how how others live (though this is certainly not a new issue).

Social exclusion can be very damaging as it limits opportunities for particular groups and often prevents the ability to help shape their own lives through political or collective action. This reminds me of William Julius Wilson’s work where economic troubles lead to the social exclusion of poor neighborhoods from broader society. Other researchers, such as Mario Small in Villa Victoria, have examined this idea more closely and found that some members of poorer neighborhoods are able to develop social networks outside their neighborhood of residence but these forays do not necessarily extend advantages to the whole community.

If researchers did decide that deprivation and social exclusion should be part of poverty measures, it would be interesting to see how the measures are standardized for social science and government data.

Maybe affordable housing will be addressed when more seniors need it

The retirement difficulties facing many American seniors includes finding decent housing:

What can be done to help today’s seniors and generations to come? There are two approaches, Prindiville says: help people save for old age and make retirement more affordable. As for the first approach, some states have been trying to establish programs that help people save for retirement through payroll deductions even if their employers don’t offer any retirement-savings accounts, for example. But the Trump administration in May repealed an Obama-era rule from the Department of Labor that would have made it easier for states to help people to set up these plans. And the federal government is winding down a program, called myRA, that tried to encourage middle- and low-income Americans to save for retirement. “There are no new initiatives or strategies coming out of the federal government at a time when the need is growing,” Prindiville said.

The second approach might mean expanding affordable housing options, creating programs to help seniors cover medical costs, and reforming the Supplemental Security Income program so that poor seniors can receive more benefits.But there does not seem to be much of an appetite for such ideas in Washington right now. In fact, the Trump administration has proposed cutting money from SSI as well as the Social Security Disability Income program.

These initiatives can make the difference between having a home—and some semblance of stability—and not. Roberta Gordon, in Corona, was barely scraping by when I talked to her. A few months later, she was much more stable. Why? She’d gotten off a wait list and been accepted into the housing-voucher program known as Section 8, which reduces the amount of income she has to put towards housing. She’s still working at 76, but she feels a little more secure now that she has more help. She knows, at least, that she’s one of the lucky ones—able, in her older years, to keep food on the table and a roof over her head.

Many Americans are opposed to helping the poor who they feel should be helping themselves. There is probably more support for providing food or temporary shelter intended to help people get through a rough patch. But, housing is something different.  Why should the government provide funds or other help in finding housing when others are working hard to rent a unit somewhere or scrap together funds to purchase a home?

But, Americans in the last century have been more willing to provide help for seniors. They have contributed to society over their lifetime. They deserve a retirement after decades of work. Society should care for the aged. This does not necessarily mean senior centers or nursing homes are welcomed everywhere; indeed, many residents do not want to live right next to one (see an example from the Chicago area). Yet, many communities also are willing to do things to help seniors stay and thus there are property tax caps or programs to help seniors pay for utilities.

Maybe this is how affordable housing will start to be addressed in many American communities: seniors will need it in the coming years and decades. Once some of this housing is present, perhaps neighbors will see it is not as bad as they feared.

Suburbs in the American west still struggling to recover

In addition to the Rust Belt, suburbs of cities in the western United States are also finding it hard to come back after the housing bubble burst:

These towns are located in the suburbs of the American west, in regions hit hard by the housing crisis—Southern California, Las Vegas, and Arizona. Hemet, a suburb of Riverside, California, with a population of 84,000, ranked eighth on EIG’s most distressed small-and-mid-sized-cities list. In Hemet, according to the group’s report, employment fell 15.5 percent between 2011 and 2015, while it grew 9.4 percent nationwide. The number of businesses in Hemet dropped 4.8 percent over that time period. The median home price, at $237,000, is still 30 percent lower than it was in 2006.

Why hasn’t Hemet found surer footing? For one thing, the region where Hemet is located was decimated by the housing crisis, with among the highest foreclosure and unemployment rates in the nation; many families are still recovering. But Hemet’s problems are also the result of structural changes in the economy—changes that have been underway for decades but were masked by the heady days of the housing boom. Middle-class jobs have been disappearing while high-wage and low-wage jobs have grown—but in different geographic locations. High-wage jobs are often located in big cities, while low-wage jobs are in relatively cheap locations like suburbs and small cities. This dynamic changes the housing markets of these cities, too, with big cities getting more expensive as more high-wage workers migrate there, and low-wage workers leaving cities to seek more affordable housing in the far-away suburbs they can afford. Now that the dust of the recession has cleared, it is evident that the geography of poverty has changed in America. Hemet is emblematic of just how fast—and just how dramatically—this has happened…

Hemet problems are in some ways particular to the areas that suffered the most during the housing bust. Suburbs far away from Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Phoenix, where people bought homes during the “drive til you qualify” housing boom, were plagued by a high number of foreclosures in the bust. After the homes went through foreclosure, they were purchased by investors and rented out, creating new, low-cost rentals. Before the recession, 63 percent of homes in Hemet were owner-occupied, today just 54 percent are, according to Census data…

In the end, Hemet is stuck. The city itself can’t convince companies to pay better wages, and it has no control over the rents in big cities that are pushing people out to the suburbs. It has tried to force absentee landlords to keep up their homes, but has limited resources to do so, and struggles to smooth over its transition from a community of homeowners to one of renters. Like many other suburbs and small cities across the country, the economic tide has turned against its residents, leaving them seemingly no path back to vitality. As Hemet and many suburbs like it are finding, growing poverty can lead to even bigger problems—lower tax revenues, fewer businesses able to stay put, worse services like schools and police. This, of course, makes them even less attractive for people who have other choices about where to live. Over time, the situation only gets worse. As nearby cities prosper, and the recession appears as just a bump in the road in the rearview mirror, distressed areas are still there, unable to move ahead.

While the fate of Hemet is tied here to the housing bubble of the late 2000s, it also represents the culmination of two older and widespread trends:

  1. The suburbanization of poverty.
  2. The economic issues facing a number of American suburbs with limited tax bases and lower-income residents.

The end of the article – the last paragraph quoted above – is depressing yet it is hard to see how many of these distressed suburbs will move ahead. They face a number of challenges, including just a lack of knowledge regarding how suburban areas can face significant economic and social issues. (In contrast, Americans tend to associate such problems with big cities.) There are a number of ways the communities could turn around but each option is fairly unlikely: a major employer with good jobs moves into town; a philanthropic organization or wealthy resident is willing to dump large sums of money into developments or changes that would benefit the whole community; state or federal governments come up with new programs or monies for suburban communities like this; or metropolitan revenue sharing is instituted and some of the money present in wealthy suburbs is made available to communities that desperately need it.

Reading into a decreasing poverty rate, increasing median household income

Here are a few notable trends in the new data that shows the poverty rate is down in the United States and median household incomes are up:

Regionally, economic growth was uneven.
The median household income in the Midwest grew just 0.9 percent from last year, which is not a statistically significant amount. In the South, by contrast, the median income grew 3.9 percent; in the West, it grew 3.3 percent. “The Midwest is the place where we should have the greatest worry in part because we didn’t see any significant growth,” said Mary Coleman, the senior vice president of Economic Mobility Pathways, a national nonprofit that tries to move people out of poverty. Median household income was also stagnant in rural areas, growing 13 percent, to $45,830. In contrast, it jumped significantly inside cities, by 5.4 percent, to $54,834, showing that cities are continuing to pull away from the rest of the country in terms of economic success…

African Americans and Hispanics experienced significant gains in income, but still trail far behind whites and Asians.
All ethnic groups saw incomes rise between 2015 and 2016, the second such annual increase in a row. The median income of black families jumped 5.7 percent between 2015 and 2016, to $39,490. Hispanic residents also saw a growth incomes, by 4.3 percent, to $47,675. Asians had the highest median household income in 2016, at $81,431. Whites saw a less significant increase than African Americans and Hispanics, of 1.6 percent, but their earning are still far higher, at $61,858.

The poverty rate for black residents also decreased last year, falling to 22 percent, from 24.1 percent the previous year. The poverty rate of Hispanics decreased to 19.4 percent, from 21.4 percent in 2015. In comparison, 8.8 of whites, or 17.3 million people, were in poverty in 2016, which was not a statistically significant change from the previous year, and 10.1 percent of Asians, or 1.9 million people were in poverty, which was also similar to 2015…

Income inequality isn’t disappearing anytime soon.
Despite the improvements in poverty and income across ethnic groups, the American economy is still characterized by significant income inequality; while the poor are finally finding more stable footing following the recession, the rich have been doing well for quite some time now. The average household income of the the top 20 percent of Americans grew $13,749 from a decade ago, while the average household income of the bottom 20 percent of Americans fell $571 over the same time period. The top 20 percent of earners made 51.5 percent of all income in the U.S. last year, while the bottom 20 percent made just 3.5 percent. Around 13 percent of households made more than $150,000 last year; a decade ago, by comparison, 8.5 percent did. While that’s something to cheer, without a solid middle class, it’s not indicative of an economy that is healthy and stable more broadly.

Both of these figures – the poverty rate and median household incomes – are important indicators of American social and economic life. Thus, that both are trending in the right direction is good.

Yet, we also have the impulse these days to (1) dig deeper into the data and (2) also highlight how these trends may not last, particularly in the era of Trump. The trends noted above (and there are others also discussed in the article) can be viewed as troubling as the gains made by some either were not shared by others or do not erase large gaps between groups. Our understandings of these income and poverty figures can change over time as measurements change and perceptions of what is important changes. For example, the median household income going up could suggest that more Americans have more income or we may now care less about absolute incomes and pay more attention to relative incomes (and particularly the gap between those at the top and bottom).

In other words, interpreting data is influenced by a variety of social forces. Numbers do not interpret themselves and our lenses consistently change. Two reasonable people could disagree on whether the latest data is good for America or suggests there are enduring issues that still need to be addressed.

More findings on poverty in the suburbs

Following Confronting Suburban Poverty in America published in 2014 comes a new book – titled Places in Need and also published by Brookings – with additional findings regarding suburban poverty:

Allard spent years studying Census data and speaking with social service providers across the country, and discovered that while concentrated poverty is still a stubborn issue in cities, it’s also becoming a much larger issue in suburbs. In 1990, there were 8.6 million poor people in the suburbs and 9.5 million in the city. In 2014, the numbers had shifted; 17 million poor Americans living in the suburbs, while 13 million poor were in cities. And it’s not just in the inner-ring suburbs; roughly two-thirds of poor suburbanites live in communities built after 1970, and poverty is growing fastest in suburbs built after 1990…

Allard also found that concentrated poverty was on the rise in the suburbs. He looked at areas with a 20 percent poverty rate, lower than the traditional 30 to 40 percent poverty rate used in many studies, and found many more people in traditional suburban areas falling into this threshold. At that point, there are serious problems, such as discrimination from labor market opportunities, public safety issues, and access to quality housing…

Allard says that sometimes, people mistakenly assume that the poor in suburbs have come from elsewhere and are new arrivals to the neighborhood, a preconception that has made it harder for suburban regions to find the political support to tackle poverty issues.

His research shows the opposite, especially since the Great Recession, which he says hit the suburbs much harder than the rest of the country. The housing crisis hit the mortgage and real estate industry as well as the home improvement business, and the changes in poverty actually became more severe in the suburbs after the larger national recovery started. Grocery markets and retail shops were having a harder time staying afloat in hard-hit suburban regions. The impact inspired the book’s cover image: a strip mall filled with closed or vacated commercial space.

If the poor do become more visible in suburban communities – either because of their numbers or because of increased attention from academics, local officials, and nearby residents – it will be interesting to see how suburban communities and residents respond. Given the exclusionary nature of American suburbs, there could be several possible responses:

  1. Ignore this as long as possible. Suburbanites are not exactly known for their social interactions with a broad range of people so if those living in poverty are outside their immediate social circles, perhaps it can simply be ignored.
  2. Not provide many social services to the suburban poor. This might be with the goal of ignoring the nearby poverty or hoping that the residents go away. Or, communities might refuse to do much on the local government level and wait for non-profits and state agencies to respond.
  3. Move away from communities where there are visible numbers of suburban poor to wealthier suburbs. If this happens, the process of white flight continues as the wealthy just keep moving away from poorer residents.

It will be worth checking in a decade or so down the road to see how exactly suburban poverty has been addressed.

Can’t ignore race when discussing poverty in America

Ta-Nehisi Coates cites several sociologists in making the argument that white and black poverty is different in the United States:

In its pervasiveness, concentration, and reach across class lines, black poverty proves itself to be “fundamentally distinct” from white poverty. It would be much more convenient for everyone on the left if this were not true—that is to say if neighborhood poverty, if systemic poverty, menaced all communities equally. In such a world, one would only need to craft universalist solutions for universal problems…This chart by sociologist Patrick Sharkey quantifies the degree to which neighborhood poverty afflicts black and white families. Sociologists like Sharkey typically define a neighborhood with a poverty rate greater than 20 percent as “high poverty.” The majority of black people in this country (56 percent) live in high-poverty neighborhoods. The vast majority of whites (94 percent) do not. The effects of this should concern anyone who believes in a universalist solution to a particular affliction…

But the “fundamental differences” between black communities and white communities do not end with poverty or social mobility.

In the chart above, Sampson plotted the the incarceration rate in Chicago from the onset imprisonment boom to its height. As Sampson notes, the incarceration rate in the most afflicted black neighborhood is 40 times worse than the incarceration rate in the most afflicted white neighborhood. But more tellingly for our purposes, incarceration rates for white neighborhoods bunch at the lower end, while incarceration rates for black neighborhoods bunch at the higher end. There is no gradation, nor overlap between the two. It is almost as if, from the perspective of mass incarceration, black and white people—regardless of neighborhood—inhabit two “fundamentally distinct”worlds.

Coates might also cite Massey and Denton’s classic American Apartheid that convincingly shows residential segregation between whites and blacks is of a different magnitude than residential segregation between other groups. Additionally, there is evidence that whites and blacks with equal characteristics are not treated equally (see a number of audit studies involving mortgages, renting, car loans, and jobs) and even that blacks who are wealthier than whites do not have access to the same opportunities. Ultimately, Coates uses these sociological findings to argue policies intended to float all lower-class boats won’t really work because they ignore the fundamental differences between black and white poverty.

Put another way, given America’s history perhaps we should require scholars and policy makers to show that race doesn’t matter in the issue they are addressing rather than the other way around.

Majority of Americans wrong about the decline in global poverty

Nicholas Kristof discusses the role of the media in contributing to incorrect knowledge about global poverty:

One survey found that two-thirds of Americans believed that the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has almost doubled over the last 20 years. Another 29 percent believed that the proportion had remained roughly the same.

That’s 95 percent of Americans — who are utterly wrong. In fact, the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty hasn’t doubled or remained the same. It has fallen by more than half, from 35 percent in 1993 to 14 percent in 2011 (the most recent year for which figures are available from the World Bank).

When 95 percent of Americans are completely unaware of a transformation of this magnitude, that reflects a flaw in how we journalists cover the world — and I count myself among the guilty…

The world’s best-kept secret is that we live at a historic inflection point when extreme poverty is retreating. United Nations members have just adopted 17 new Global Goals, of which the centerpiece is the elimination of extreme poverty by 2030. Their goals are historic. There will still be poor people, of course, but very few who are too poor to eat or to send children to school. Young journalists or aid workers starting out today will in their careers see very little of the leprosy, illiteracy, elephantiasis and river blindness that I have seen routinely.

Kristof and a growing number of others have noted that certain aspects of life are getting better for many people – like decreasing violence around the world or lower crime rates in the United States – yet the general public is not aware of this. The media is certainly complicit but they are not the only social forces at work here.

Turning to my own discipline of sociology, several sociologists, including Ulrich Beck, Barry Glassner, and Harvey Molotch, have written books on the topic of fear. Yet, it doesn’t seem to get much attention from the discipline as a whole. Of course, sociologists are regularly pointing out social problems (critics may say even inventing social problems) and often trying to offer arguments for why people and those in power should do something.

If there is positive psychology, how about positive sociology? Here is a rumbling or two