San Antonio Express News, August 31, 2007: War on poverty remains a tough task as costs for families increase

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Decades have passed since President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a national war on poverty and want, motivated, he said, by the destitution he had witnessed and experienced.

But over the decades since his noble call, Texas’ state government has adopted a long list of policies that have turned Texas into a poster child for how to keep poor people impoverished and miserable.

As Labor Day approached, the Center for Public Policy Priorities released “What It Really Takes To Get By In Texas,” a detailed analysis on how widespread poverty is in our state, where millions of us don’t live in huge mansions, own oil wells or trot around on show horses.

It also includes some common-sense recommendations so we can start making a serious and humane dent into the state’s pervasive poverty.

Venture into the Texas tourists never see where not even bottom-dollar motel chains will set up shop and you will see what Texas has left behind.

It is there, in the kitchens, yards, shops and work sites of lower-wage employers that you will see hard-working adults working hard, full-time to provide for their children, and finding it virtually impossible to climb out of the economic sinkhole they are in.

As the report’s title implies, the most common measure of poverty, the federal poverty level, wasn’t particularly good when it was concocted. Now, almost five decades later, it is all but divorced from the economic reality faced by millions.

“We’ve been using the same measure since 1959,” says Frances Deviney, a senior research associate with the CPPP and co-author of the study. And even though it is adjusted regularly for inflation, it presents an unrepresentative picture of how widespread poverty really is.

When it was concocted, the FPL assumed that poor people spent one third of the absolute minimum income they needed on food. Now, 48 years later, we still define poverty as three times the absolute minimum needed to keep from starving, without even accounting for regional differences or other costs.

Since the 1960s, food has become slightly less expensive when adjusted for inflation, Deviney says. But this decline has not come close to offsetting increases in other expenses such as housing, health care, utilities and transportation that are now larger shares of everyone’s bare essentials.

And other expenses, such as child-care costs and families’ share of health-care and other employer-provided benefits have also grown dramatically.

“Some of these, like child care, didn’t really exist before,” Deviney says. “And health care has gone through the roof. And housing costs, particularly in metro areas, are pretty inflated from what they were.”

Hoping to develop a more realistic measure of poverty, CPPP researchers have factored into their new index regional costs for housing, child care, health-insurance premiums, out-of-pocket medical expenses, transportation, federal tax payments and credits, and the price of other things that have become necessities, such as local phone service, clothing, and household and personal-care products.

The 2007 official federal poverty level for a family of two parents with two children is $20,650.

“But in San Antonio, we estimated that it would cost about $40,826 if that family had good, employer-sponsored health insurance” to begin to escape the poverty cycle, Deviney says.

“And if you didn’t have that, but you had to pay the health insurance on your own, the price jumps up to $49,098.

“The tragic thing is that when people are confronted with that kind of economic reality, they often just go without health insurance,” she added. “This can put them into really dire economic straits if anything happens, like if they have a car wreck or if a child breaks an arm.”

And when those things happen, where do they go for expensive emergency-room care? Then, local taxpayers end up paying much larger expenses because we saved money on the short run. How smart is that?

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