Resilient Communities are the Foundations of a Resilient America.

Inequality, Poverty and Community Resilience

I believe in the resilience and endurance of the human spirit. If given the opportunity, the capacity and the tools, the marginalized can and will extricate themselves from poverty. It’s our job to provide them with an enabling ecosystem or get out of their way. — Asher Hasan

As we once more enter into the political silly season, I want to take a look at what is becoming one of its defining issues:  financial inequality.  But I want to look at it through the lens of community resilience, not that of politics.  This note will run a little long because of the charts I’ve included but I hope you’ll read it through.  No matter your political prejudices you’re going to find something to dislike in the following!

The ability to recover from crises is ultimately what resilience is all about.  Recovery takes resources – always from those impacted by the crisis, and often help from others as well.  As I’ve tried to make clear in a variety of ways “resources” means not only financial capital but other forms of capital as well – knowledge, skills, social connections and others.

Experience teaches that those at the bottom of the economic ladder are less likely to recover from a crisis – of whatever type – than others, and even if they do recover they will lag behind those who have greater resources.  The poor have neither the income nor the accumulated wealth to make up their losses quickly.  In fact, most of those below the poverty threshold* are living in debt – they effectively have no financial capital to contribute to their own recovery.

About one-fourth of Americans have still not made up the ground they lost due to the Great Recession, with the odds most heavily stacked against those with the lowest incomes and the poorest educations.  Similarly, a report from the Measure of America shows that while most Mississippians have recovered from Hurricane Katrina, the poorest by and large have not.  And the boarded-up houses in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans offer mute testimony that the same holds true there.

For communities in crisis, resources are at a premium.  If a community can lift those at the bottom out of poverty during normal times, then it will have that much more available for recovery.  This leads to two questions:

  • Who are those at the bottom?
  • How can we tilt the odds so that they can rise above the poverty level and stay there?

 

I’m going to rely on data collected by the Urban Institute – augmented by my own data mining – to come up with my answers to those questions.  I invite you to come up with yours.

First, who are the poor?

Poverty level vs race

If we look at a chart of the fraction of various ethnic groups who are poor, we get a familiar story – a higher proportion of people of color are below the poverty level.  However, that doesn’t tell the whole story – the total number of poor whites (17 M) is only slightly less than the number of African Americans and Hispanics combined (11 M Hispanics; 9 M African Americans).

If we look at other characteristics of those below the poverty threshold, it should be no surprise that the unemployed are over-represented, as are the disabled.  There are somewhat more women than men (though the trend seems to be moving in the opposite direction).  Those below 18, even if working, are more likely to be poor.  The fraction of non-citizens below the poverty level is almost twice as high as that of either native-born or naturalized Americans.  There is clearly an urban-rural divide, but the fraction of those below the poverty threshold living near smaller cities is lower than either.  And there is a somewhat higher proportion of those below the poverty level living in the South (though if you take into account cost of living, California has a higher fraction of those living below the poverty level than any other state).

Poverty vs family

Family status is another important factor.  As the graph shows, the fraction of families with only a female head of household (no spouse present) living in poverty is over five times that of married couples.  And over half of the children in these families are also in poverty.  While the difference is not as drastic, the disparity between families with a married couple vs those with only a male head of household is still striking.

Education may be the most important factor – one-fourth of those without a high school diploma are subsisting below the poverty level.  Simply getting that diploma cuts the fraction in half.  And less than 5% of those with a college education are below the poverty level.

chart7

So who are the poor?  The biggest discriminators are education, family status, employment, disability, race and sex.  The more of these barriers a person faces, the greater the likelihood of poverty.  Unfortunately far too many face a stack of these barriers, not just one – black women with children who don’t have a high school diploma, for example.

Given these characteristics of poverty, let me turn to my second question – how can we tilt the odds so that those at the bottom can rise above the poverty level and stay there?  I’m sure you’ve noticed that I’ve phrased the question a little differently than the way it usually is, something like “how can we help those at the bottom?”  Ultimately, the best we can do is provide opportunities for those at the bottom to rise – it’s up to them to seize them.  Sure, we could give the poor handouts, but handouts aren’t sustainable.  Better to increase opportunities and knock down as many barriers as we can.

We also have to recognize that there aren’t any quick fixes.  President Johnson declared war on poverty in 1964.  We’ve made some progress in the half-century plus since then, but there is still much left to do.  So how can we create the “enabling ecosystem” Hasan calls for?  We need to have consistent hands on each of these control knobs.

  • Education.  As the grandson of an immigrant, it was drummed into my head that education was the key to success.  This is borne out by the stats I’ve noted above.  But I think there are two important changes we need to make in our children’s (in my case, grandchildren’s) education.First, all children need to become financially literate.  Ignorance leads to bad decisions in handling money which leads to a lack of reserves when times get bad. Knowledge means that opportunities are recognized when they appear.  How about requiring that all students take a home economics course that is really about economics?  We can’t stop people from making bad decisions but we can certainly nudge them to make better decisions.
    Second, we need to give everyone the experience of working with their hands.  We have too many who took on too much debt going for a college education that hasn’t prepared them for a career.  We need people in the crafts and trades – especially when disaster strikes.  Roofers, plumbers, electricians even at the bottom of their professional ladders make much more than the poverty level, giving them the chance to accumulate wealth.  What about requiring shop or cooking and certainly typing again?  Give a kid some kind of skill base to build on.
  • Family.  I was astounded at just how important being a part of a family is in terms of poverty.  It sadly has become culturally cool to downplay the importance of having both a father and a mother, but how else to explain the poverty of single-parent households.  We have too many celebrities sneering at the two-adult family and not enough cheering for it.  We have too many athletes having too many children out of wedlock.  We have too few role models who stand up for family.While I’ve presented data on poverty, family is also an important source of opportunity.  For many of us, our folks helped us get our first jobs.  For many that first job led on to their ultimate careers.  Single mothers and fathers living in poverty have all they can do to stretch whatever income they have to cover food, shelter and clothing for themselves and their children.  It’s not that they don’t want to help their kids; they simply are too busy scrambling to be able to help by networking.
  • Community.  After I graduated from college, I was drafted into the Army.  Because of that I met and made friends with people with a lot more and a lot less than I had; with people of different races from different parts of the country.  Research has shown that these kinds of weak ties are extremely valuable in getting jobs.  While I recognize it’s not a popular idea, why not reinstitute a draft so that everyone has to perform some type of community service?  That would give poor kids a chance to connect with people they’d otherwise never meet and develop those ties that are the real basis of “White Privilege.”
  • Economy.  Finally, let’s not forget we need a thriving economy.  Growth means more opportunities for those at the bottom.  The federal government’s policies (especially those of the Federal Reserve) have widened the disparities between rich and poor, but we have still reached historically low levels of unemployment and of poverty among minorities.  This indicates that we have something like Hasan’s enabling ecosystem; the disparities indicate that we can improve it so that it functions better for all of us.

As I write this on the Fourth of July, I remember that our nation’s founding fathers only promised us the unfettered pursuit of happiness, not happiness itself.  They recognized that there would always be some poorer than others; but their vision was a society in which people could go as far as their abilities could take them.  That means a society of opportunity, but also a society that prepares its citizens to recognize and take advantage of opportunities.  If we can achieve that, our communities will be the stronger for it.
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* In preparing this short essay, I stumbled across the history of the poverty threshold or level.  Worth digging into!  I had thought that its basis was similar to the basis for the Consumer Price Index – a standard basket of goods – but it’s not.  The poverty level is determined by the cost of the least expensive nutritious meal (as defined by USDA), and a fudge factor relating to other household expenditures.  Currently it’s about $16K for a single individual + $4K for every other member of a household.