Savannah Morning News. September 2, 2007: Economy grows but leaves some behind
By Brandon Larrabee
ATLANTA – When the economy bounced back after the recession of 2001, it forgot to bring along people like Taquana Spicer.
Spicer, 27, is a nonprofit worker in Atlanta’s suburban Clayton County who earns $7.50 an hour and works 40 hours a week. When she got paid recently, she had to decide whether to keep the electricity in her house running or get the gas turned back on.
“I figured the lights may be a little more important, so the gas will have to wait,” she said.
Spicer has three children, ages 2 through 11. Her family is one of nearly 7.7 million U.S. families living in poverty in 2005, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
More than a quarter of a million families in Georgia lived in poverty in 2006, according to numbers recently released by the bureau.
While that number is a slight decrease from the 7.8 million poor families counted in 2004, it is still well above the 6.4 million families who lived in poverty in 2000. Until 2005, the number of poor families grew every year, even as the economy improved.
“A rising tide does not lift all boats, or doesn’t lift them all equally or proportionately,” said Michael Petit, president of the Every Child Matters Education Fund and author of a new report, “Homeland Insecurity: American Children at Risk.”
The issue is a particular problem in the South. Six of the 10 states with the highest rates of child poverty are in the Deep South. Other states on the list include Kentucky, West Virginia, Oklahoma and New Mexico.
For example, the child poverty rate in Mississippi is 31 percent, according to Petit’s report. In Oklahoma and South Carolina, it’s 23 percent; in Texas, 25 percent of children live in poverty.
By contrast, in New Hampshire, which has the lowest rate of child poverty, only 9 percent of children are poor.
Poor children don’t always get a lot of attention from politicians.
“They’re not a political force, and they’ve been easy to ignore,” said Petit, whose group and others are trying to make child poverty a central issue in next year’s campaign.
Poor – officially and otherwise
Of course, the 12.9 million children living in poverty aren’t the victims of their own work and investing habits.
“We always like to remind people that children are poor because their parents are poor, and their parents are poor for many reasons,” said Nancy Cauthen, of the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.
Spicer doesn’t back away from acknowledging she’s made choices she wishes she hadn’t. She was pregnant at 16 and has a criminal record.
But about the time her first daughter starting getting old enough to ask questions about why her mother was or wasn’t doing certain things, Spicer realized she needed to get back on the right track.
“No parent ever wants to hear their child say they’re hungry or they’re cold, and you can’t do nothing about it,” she said.
Eventually, after getting laid off from a retail job, Spicer found a job at a nonprofit organization through Georgia’s welfare program. The income, though, is hardly enough to support her family.
The federal poverty level for a family of four in 2007 is $20,650. If Spicer works 40 hours a week at $7.50, that’s $15,600, or about three quarters of what she would have to make to cross the threshold separating the officially poor from those who aren’t.
The father of one of her children does try to help from time to time, but he’s also not on strong financial footing, Spicer said. Her application for subsidized housing has been in limbo for seven years. When she chose a house, rented to her by her boss at a discount, she tried to make sure it was close to work, school and her child care because Spicer doesn’t have a car and uses public transportation.
“I do get food stamps, though, thank God,” she said.
Spicer sees few options. She would like to go back to school, but the only way she sees to do that is to get into subsidized housing so she can move to a part-time position at the nonprofit. She hopes to get a car soon, something that would allow her to take a Saturday class.
“I hear a lot, ‘Get another job,’ ” she said. “But then it’s a sacrifice because what time would I have with my kids?”
She tries to hide the true situation from her children, just as her mother had done when she was young.
“I try not to let them (notice) at all,” she said. “My kids are actually very happy kids.”
In addition to families such as Spicer’s, advocates say, millions of Americans are low-income but not technically “poor” under the federal government’s definition. They say the poverty levels for a family the size of Spicer’s, for example, are about half of what they should be, even for a no-frills lifestyle.
“We’re still talking about a pretty bare-bones budget,” Cauthen said.
The formula for determining the poverty level was created in 1960, and drew on figures from 1955. At the time, the average family spent about one-third of its income on food, so the poverty level was determined by figuring out the smallest amount of money a family of a certain size would need to eat and multiplying the number by three.
“Over time, all that’s been done is to update that for inflation,” Cauthen said.
Meanwhile, the family budget has changed, and Americans now spend about one-seventh of their money on food.
How to help those families is a thorny and sometimes politically volatile question.
Petit and Cauthen said the nation needs to do more to assist low-income Americans, especially those trying to work their way out of poverty.
Cauthen said the federal government should beef up some of the programs included in the 1996 welfare reform measure to help families trying to move from public-benefit rolls to the work force.
For his part, Petit points to the generous benefits policies in other Western nations, which generally have poverty rates far lower than America’s. Using similar ideas, he figures the country could set out a basic living standard.
“If they’re working full time, you’d say, ‘You can’t fall below the federal poverty level,’ ” he said.
Some have a different answer.
In a report called “Understanding Poverty in America,” written for the conservative Heritage Foundation, Robert Rector and Kirk Johnson argued that some poor Americans today are better off than the popular understanding of “poverty.”
The solution for families who are poor, Rector and Johnson wrote, is to boost marriage and make an even stronger push to get adults whose children receive welfare benefits into jobs.
“If child poverty is to be substantially reduced, welfare must be transformed,” they wrote. “Able-bodied parents must be required to work or prepare for work, and the welfare system should encourage rather than penalize marriage.”
Private groups also are trying to do their part. Drawing on the lessons of a similar program in Palm Beach County, Fla., the Atlanta Community Food Bank has opened the Atlanta Prosperity Campaign.
The goal, said manager Carter Elliott, is not simply to help families get benefits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, meant to help low-income Americans, but to help families use those resources wisely so they can, for example, buy a home.
“The ultimate goal is to get people to build assets,” Elliott said.
Some of the prescriptions are, in the end, expensive. Supporters like Cauthen, though, say there are few alternatives.
“I think what we always have to come back to is, ‘What are our priorities as a nation?’ “