New data released by the Census Bureau finds that 18.9 percent of all Alabama residents were in poverty in 2011, including 27.8 percent of all children and 10.3 percent of all elders — rates quite similar to 2010. These levels of economic hardship are disturbing, but the prospect of future federal and state budget cuts that will undoubtedly result in an increase in the poverty rate is equally disturbing.
The causes of this hardship are well understood — unemployment remains high, our recovery has been led by the growth of low-wage jobs with no benefits, real median wages have declined since the 1960s, and the cost of living continues to rise. Many families have exhausted unemployment insurance. While much hardship is attributable to the ongoing effects of a severe recession, it is also clear that government has compounded market effects in its misguided focus on austerity.
While the Census Bureau’s official poverty measure does not capture the impact of transfer payments such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) and tax credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit, they play a critical role in alleviating poverty. Census estimated that last year SNAP helped to keep 3.9 million Americans out of poverty, including 1.7 million children, and the EITC helped 5.7 million Americans out of poverty, including 3.1 million children. Social Security alone kept 21.4 million Americans out of poverty last year.
While these programs have been critical in alleviating hardship for millions of poor families, the social safety net fails to assist millions of other families who live above the poverty line but still lack economic security. The 50-year-old poverty measure, which is only based on the cost of food across the country, is an antiquated and inaccurate method for measuring households’ income deprivation. The Basic Economic Security Tables for Alabama produced by the Community Action Association of Alabama and our national partner, Wider Opportunities for Women, measures the true cost of getting by for different family types at the county level.
For example, in Alabama, a single worker needs to earn, on average, $12.44/hour, or $26,000 a year, just to meet the costs of basic expense such as housing, food, transportation and health care. A family of four requires nearly $58,000, or stated another way, both adult workers in such a family need to earn more than $13 an hour. Too many jobs in our state don’t ensure families these incomes. Many families’ incomes may place them above the federal poverty line, but they are still struggling to just get by. According to this measure of well-being, WOW found that 45 percent of U.S. residents in 2010 lived in households that lacked basic economic security.
The poverty release is an important reminder that the recession and the strains of low-wage work and unemployment are far from over for too many hard-working, low-income families. As we collectively work to rebuild our communities’ stability, we must both fight poverty and promote genuine economic security. We must take account of the costs that working families face, create jobs that pay for basic expenses and provide supports that allow workers to adequately care for their families. Most immediately, our nation needs a balanced approach to federal and state budgets that goes beyond the simple-minded, cuts-only approach that hurts families and threatens economic recovery.
Ron Gilbert (email@example.com) is the executive director of the Community Action Association of Alabama, a network of local agencies working to alleviate conditions of poverty in all 67 counties.