America’s Poverty Rate Increases

English: Number in Poverty and Poverty Rate: 1...

English: Number in Poverty and Poverty Rate: 1959 to 2009. United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The ranks of America’s poor are on track to climb to levels unseen in nearly half a century, erasing gains from the war on poverty in the 1960s amid a weak economy and fraying government safety net.

The news report is so disturbing that it has already been reprinted in multiple publications and on any number of social media feeds.  It also invokes many possible responses—dismay that more people living in poverty; concern that that our safety net is crumbling; alarm that children will be poorer than their parents; and distress over what the future of our nation will be as a result.

Those are not my immediate responses.  I think about the day-to-day reality of being poor.  One recent evening,  I was at Wal-Mart with my husband and my 14-year-old son.   My son needed something for school the next day, but had forgotten to tell us until that evening so we ran to Wal-Mart to get it.  In front of us in the checkout line was an older man buying food. He had Vienna sausage, Spam, day-old white bread, and canned beans.  Nothing in his basket needed to be cooked, and nothing cost more than a dollar.

Because of my years working as a social worker I knew that this man must live somewhere that did not have a stove or microwave.  He could have a room at an SRO, he could be at a shelter, or he could live on the streets.  As we left, I saw him get on his bicycle with his bag. The bicycle was old and had no headlight. It was late, and the Wal-Mart was on a highway—not the sort of location you would want to be riding an old bike without a headlight if you had a choice.  I could only feel sad.

The 2010 poverty level was $22,314 for a family of four, and $11,139 for an individual, based on an official government calculation that includes only cash income, before tax deductions.

It’s very easy to look at this numbers and think only in abstract terms.  But I prefer to think in concrete terms—what do those figures mean when considering what someone needs to live?  The poverty level presumes a family of four can live on less than $22, 314 a year, but how?  Let’s assume rent is low—say $500 a month (and I don’t know anywhere a family of four can find a place for that)—rent alone has already taken up more than a quarter of the year’s money.  And that rent may not include utilities like gas, electric and water—let’s add another $200 a month for that.  Have we talked about transportation?  A car with gas, insurance and maintenance can take a significant portion of the remainder, but even public transportation such as buses and subways require money—travel is not free.  What else is essential?  Food, clothes, insurance, insurance co-pays, over the counter medication (insurance does not pay for aspirin or Benadryl) child care, not to mention cleaning supplies and hygiene products.  Even if a family receives some assistance from the government, that assistance is minimal and limited to food, rent subsidy, or small amounts of cash that usually comes tied to conditions such as work or training programs.

The truth is that it is possible to work full time and still fall under the poverty line.  Indeed, $22,314 a year is equivalent to working full time (40 hours a week, for 52 weeks) for $10.73 an hour, well above the minimum wage in most states.  And it is not the isolated case where working people make that little.  The median wage in the US in 2010 was only $26,364, only $4,050 more than the poverty rate for a family of four.  That means half of all U.S. workers made wages less than that.  It is possible that many live in households where other people work, or that they have taken second or third jobs, but it is still a sobering statistic when the numbers are translated into basic necessities like food, shelter, and clothing.

There are many who say the Federal Poverty Level does not accurately measure poverty (see our blog post about it here).   Many have advocated measuring poverty in terms of basic needs.  The National Center for Children in Poverty has a Basic Needs Calculator, which evaluates how much it really costs to live in a given state and city (or county).  In most places, it costs almost twice the federal poverty level to make ends meet for a family of four.  That is without any extras, no books, no trips to the library, no picnics in the park.

We have talked before about how much more expensive it is to do basic things, like diapering your baby, if you don’t have much money.  And we have also talked about the disadvantages people without money face in getting a good education or otherwise breaking free from the cycle of poverty.  We talk about these things because these are the concrete realities of poverty.  The numbers are disturbing in the abstract, but when you bring them to a personal level, like the man shopping in Wal-Mart, they are downright heartbreaking.

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The High Cost of Poverty–Education Edition

The effect of being poor is more than not being able to buy things.  It fundamentally affects how you are able to function in life.  This is particularly true for students in poor families, who often come to school hungry, without enough sleep, and without having done their homework because they lack the supplies and the space necessary to do it.  As Brock Cohen, a teacher in the Los Angeles County Unified District writes in a blog for the Washington Post,

What had grown increasingly clear to me was that my students’ academic struggles did not simply stem from inaction, ineffective parenting, drug use, or neglect. While these elements were usually present in various forms, or to greater or lesser degrees, they weren’t the root causes of their failure; they were the effects of poverty. What I’d learned in less than a semester of teaching was that poverty wasn’t merely a temporary, though unpleasant, condition — like a hangover or the sniffles. It was a debilitating, often generational, epidemic.

And students in low-income districts are often taught by inexperienced teachers who are paid less well than their counterparts in more affluent districts.  Because most educational districts are funded on the local level, the property taxes in a given district have a great deal to do with how much the district has to spend on the school and the students who attend it.  So students in poor families, most often living in poor neighborhoods, get shortchanged, not only by their family’s debilitating economic situation, but also by school districts without the means to make up the difference.   Cohen notes, they become “apartheid” schools, where testing is substituted for learning.

Education expert Professor Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University has observed that the U.S.’s famously poor showing in educational achievement among the world’s industrialized nations is directly attributable to the U.S.’s increased population of poor children.

There is another story we rarely hear: Our children who attend schools in low-poverty contexts are doing quite well. In fact, U.S. students in schools in which less than 10 percent of children live in poverty score first in the world in reading, out-performing even the famously excellent Finns.

In high-achieving countries like Finland and Singapore, strong social safety nets ensure that virtually all schools have fewer than 10 percent of their students living in poverty. Although the poverty-test score association is similar across 14 wealthy nations (with the average scores of the poorest 5 percent of students just over half those of their wealthiest peers), our poverty rate for children is much higher than others: 22 percent of all U.S. children and 25 percent of young children live in poverty.

The link between poverty and low academic achievement is well documented.  So if we are counting on education as the primary means for helping poor children escape poverty, but do not address the poverty that robs children of their ability to obtain academic success, we have simply turned public schools into the scapegoats for erosion of the American dream, and abandoned our future in the process.

Why are we writing about this?  Because diapers (and other hygiene products) are part of the long list of things people who don’t have enough money cannot buy.  Why do diapers matter?  Because people ( young and old)  must have their basic needs met and cannot develop optimally without that.  As we observed in June, the EU measures child deprivation by measuring children’s access to items that go beyond the bare minimum to sustain life, but include modest comforts that improve the quality of life.  As we said then, if children are our nation’s future, shouldn’t we give them not just the bare minimum to survive, but the basics they need to thrive?   Without these things, we are impoverishing not only our children’s opportunity to grow but also our nation’s future.

Trucks Filled with Diapers

. . . are surprisingly hard to unload, particularly if the diapers were on pallets that were loaded on the truck sideways.  I can say this now from first hand experience, since I participated in my first truck unloading last week, as a board member of The Diaper Bank in North Haven, CT.  The Diaper Bank is serving as a hub for our east coast distribution of diapers this month, and received two truckloads of diapers, each containing 268,240 diapers.  The diapers in this truckload came on 30 pallets, or more precisely, what seemed to me to be 30 double decker pallets, which created a high and not entirely stable stack of diapers held together with shrink wrap.  Sort of.  When the pallet jack was operated by less experienced hands, the diapers could (and did) topple over, creating a cascade of boxes in the middle of the warehouse.

Have I mentioned this was my first actual experience with a truck full of diapers?  I have been on a board of The Diaper Bank for nearly three years, and part of my current work duties is to help orchestrate the flow of diapers across the country (although I admittedly leave most of the orchestration to the very capable and charming Chris Blake, senior vice president of our distribution partner, Kids in Distressed Situations).  But I had never before seen what a truck load of diapers looks like.  Now I have. It is a [expletive deleted] lot of diapers.

And the diapers were not loaded on nicely so that we could use the pallet jack to get them off relatively quickly (getting 30 pallets off a truck, even with a pallet jack is not a “quick” process).  The pallets were all turned, so initially we started unloaded box by box to clear one pallet out of the way to get the next off with the pallet jack.  (A pallet jack, for the uninitiated is sort of like a manual fork lift.  It has two long prongs which go into the openings at the bottom of the pallet and allows you to lift the pallet off the floor so you can roll the pallet away to where you want it in the warehouse.  But you need to be able to get to the two slots at the bottom of each pallet to use it.  If they are turned so that the slots are perpendicular to the side of the truck, and thus unaccessible, you can’t use the jack.)  Then the ever resourceful Kym Hunter, Program Director of The Diaper Bank, got the great idea to strap belts around the pallets so we could pull them into the open area of the truck so we could maneuver a pallet jack around to pick them up.  Not  quite as efficient as having straightforward access to the pallet slots, but a definite improvement over unstacking the pallets box by box. (Here’s a picture of Kym Hunter and Eboni Costi after wrestling a doubledecker pallet to the warehouse) 

Having seen how much space 268,240 diapers take, I now have a better appreciation for how many diapers that really is.  But I am also even more amazed when I realize how little that number will do to help the diaper need problem facing our nation.  Without getting into questions about sizes and such, and assuming an average of 50 diaper changes a week, 268,240 diapers would provide a week’s worth of diaper changes for 5,364 children, or a year’s worth of changes for about 104 children.  The Diaper Bank in North Haven helps 4000 families monthly.  Even if these diapers were going to stay in North Haven, they would be a great help, but not enough.  These diapers, however, are destined not only for The Diaper Bank, but will also be distributed to other diaper banks in the Northeast.  And there are still other trucks filled with diapers going out to other distribution points throughout the country (another shout out to Chris Blake–THANK YOU).

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, “So How Many Diapers Do We Need?,”  we need billions of diapers to help the 5.7 million infants and toddlers living in poor and low-income families. Every little bit helps–every package of diapers you bring to a local diaper bank helps a family in need, and every dollar you give can be used to buy diapers.   Help us close the diaper gap.  

Summer of Kindness

NDBN was mentioned recently in the July 2012 issue of Good Housekeeping, in an article entitled “50 Simple Acts of Kindness.”  (We’re at #12, which recommends donating diapers.)   Just for grins, and because it was Monday morning in the summer after an on-again-off-again sort of week, we decided to see how many of these suggested simple acts of kindness we currently have incorporated into our regular routine.  Among the three of us (yes, all this magic happens as the result of three people), we found we already do 30 on a regular basis.

The suggestions tend to fall into certain categories of daily living.  Many of these suggestions are what might be called common courtesy– letting the person behind you in line go first (#4) (I do this particularly if they only have a few items); holding the door open for someone (#7); and letting other cars merge onto the highway (#9).  Others are a form of recycling, recognizing that items you might have no need for may still be useful to others, such as donating professional clothes to organizations like Dress for Success (#18) or donating old cell phones to organizations that can use them, such as the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (#25)  (there are also organizations that collect cell phones for the troops).  Donating old eye glasses to the Lions Club could also fall into this category, although the article does not mention it.  An extension of this category is the category of thoughtful giving–bringing combs, toothbrushes and toothpaste (and other hygiene items) to a homeless shelter (#8); loading extra money into a vending machine for the next person (#31); buying a book for a child (#38); and providing inexpensive coloring books and crayons to a pediatric ward (#5).   And still others fall into what my mother would call good manners–making others feel welcomed and thought of–relying an overheard comment (#37); rescuing a wallflower standing alone at a party (#48); and genuinely asking others how you can help (#50).   None of the suggestions are earth shattering, but each idea, if implemented, has the potential to make someone’s day a little brighter and easier, and to make the doer feel better about her place in the world.

We’ve decided that we are going to make it a point this summer to incorporate all of these suggestions into our regular routines.  With the hot weather, it’s easy for people’s nerves to be frayed, so it seems as if summer is a good time to exercise our kindness muscles.   It will allow all of us to exercise our baking skills (several suggestions involve giving neighbors and public servants like firefighters treats); make someone else’s day a little brighter; and do our part to improve life in our community and the world.

What other acts of kindness can you add to this list?  Consider starting your own summer of kindness, with a donation of diapers to your local diaper bank or social service agency, and a donation to the National Diaper Bank Network.

We’ll be charting our progress on this blog.  So for our first act (#39 on the list), here’s a video our Facebook friends pointed us to.   Enjoy. 

Some thoughts on Independence Day

Tomorrow we celebrate Independence Day, the official “birthday” of the United States.  Often, we celebrate by considering what it means to be an American.

One of the enduring aspects of the American character is our appreciation of the independent individual–the person who can make his or her way in the world without a helping hand.  But the truth is, we all need a helping hand.  Whether it is your parents or other caregiver who taught you how to walk, speak, and care for yourself, the teacher who taught you how to read, write, add, and think critically, the mentor who took you under his or her wing at work, or anyone else who lent a helping hand, we all can look back at a point in our lives when we needed help in obtaining the position we hold and the things have so we could be “independent individuals.”  In truth, one of the things that makes America great is that there are so many people in our lives willing to reach out and help others pull themselves up.

For families in need, diaper banks can provide that helping hand to achieving independence.  A family without diapers cannot place their children in quality child care, limiting their ability to go to work or school. A family without diapers can sink into a funk of despair and stress that makes it difficult to focus on any higher order need beyond clothing and feeding their children, resulting in less opportunity to stimulate children’s intellect and motor development to prepare them for success in life. A baby without diapers lives in daily discomfort, limiting his ability to absorb the world around him.  Diapers can help families and children focus on obtaining those skills and economic position that will allow them to succeed independently.

Help us help families in need to obtain the independence that is the American ideal.  Give generously to your local diaper bank, or consider holding a diaper drive in your community to celebrate what makes America great.

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