Holistic view of poverty


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Holistic view of poverty

  1. 1. “A Holistic Approach to Poverty”Thad Williamson, University of RichmondJuly 13, 2011*DRAFT*I’ve been asked to speak about alternative approaches to measuring poverty, and I said I woulddo that but wanted to open it up into a broader discussion about thinking about poverty anddisadvantage. Statistics are very helpful, and it’s important that we undertake this anti-povertywork with a solid analysis of the specifics of what’s going on in Richmond. But poor people arenot statistics—they are human beings with desires, hopes, needs, fears—in short, lives of theirown. Any discussion of how to realistically address poverty while building a better city mustkeep that in mind. I. Measuring Poverty and Disadvantage in RichmondThe official government poverty line is based on an estimate of the cost of meeting a household’sbasic needs. Though this is the most widely used indicator, there are many good reasons why weshould not take it is our sole barometer of measuring economic disadvantage. The formula hasnot been updated in decades and hence does not reflect the rising costs of health care, forinstance; nor does it account for child care and transportation costs associated with womenentering the work force, or higher tax rates, or regional variations in the cost of living. On theother hand, the formula also ignores in-kind benefits such as food stamps as well as tax rebatesvia the Earned Income Tax Credit. Many experts think the official formula on balance overstatesavailable income in low-income households by some 10-20%. But beyond these technicalcritiques of the formula, there are strong philosophical reasons to also look at other measures.I want to stress two important points in this regard. First, poverty is best understood not as aabsolute dividing line that a person or household is on one side or another, based on their incomeat a given time. Rather, it is best understood as a clustering of social and economic disadvantagesof different kinds which severely constrain human functioning and well-being—or to put it insimpler terms, disadvantages that constrain the kind of life one is able to live. Not having enoughmoney to meet basic needs is one very important dimension of poverty, but so is socialexclusion. We must pay attention not just to absolute deprivation but also relative deprivation—that is how far below the accepted social standards of a given society one’s household falls. Andwe must pay attention to the subjective dimensions of poverty—what it feels like to be poor andsocially excluded, and how this impacts individuals’ sense of self. Many scholars now think thatdiscussions of poverty are best framed not by looking only at income levels, but a fuller pictureof the range of functionings (or capabilities) that make up a satisfying human life. I will bediscussing this “capabilities” approach to thinking about poverty in more detail shortly. 1  
  2. 2. Second, even in narrow economic terms, we need to be as concerned with persons andhouseholds just above the poverty line as those just below. Many of the same kinds of practicalproblems and concerns apply to both groups—the challenge of finding and keeping steady work,the stress of making ends meet, the fear and vulnerability experienced. In fact, over time, there isan enormous amount of churning in the bottom-half of the income distribution. Householdsclimb out above the poverty line for a time, and then fall back; and vice-versa. A common themeof both academic and high-caliber journalistic investigations into poverty in the U.S. over thepast decade has been the persistent instability the working poor experience. (Here I recommendamong others David Shipler’s book “The Working Poor,” as well as Katherine Newman’s book“The Missing Class.”) Enormous personal effort to get ahead can easily be undone by an eventout of one’s control, or by a relationship or family situation that alters for the worse, or by a risktaken that doesn’t work out. Those just above poverty don’t often have a buffer when adverseevents happen and hence are at risk of seeing their income and standard of living decline. Amajor policy challenge then, is how to provide support and more of a buffer for those who arenow just barely making it but are at risk of falling back. Put another way, the challenge is tobuild a true ladder that persons and households striving to move from poverty to a position ofeconomic security can truly grab on to, to replace the random and dispiriting game of Chutes andLadders many households must now play, in which one bad roll of the dice can knock you backall the way to where you started.Consequently, I think it makes a lot of sense to focus our attention not just on all households whohappen to be below the technical poverty line at a given moment, but all those who over, say, aten year period, are at significant risk of slipping into poverty at some point. Here in Richmond,we have recently been using the figure 22% as the estimate of the city’s poverty rate, which isthe 5-year average from 2005-2009 according to Census Bureau data collected via the AmericanCommunity Survey. The actual poverty rate at the moment is probably even higher than thatbecause of the recession—indeed, the most recent available one-year estimate of the poverty ratewas 24%.Add bread-basketBut consider what we find if we look beyond that number to three alternative measures ofdeprivation. The first is a measure of how many Richmonders now fall below half the medianhousehold income in the U.S (about $50,000 in 2009)—that is, less than $25,000. As Dr. Moeserpointed out in his presentation to this group in May, the standard of falling below half the medianincome is widely used in other nations as a measure of poverty: it reflects both objectivedeprivation and relative deprivation—the extent to which a household is falling behind the normin a given society.The second is a measure of how many Richmonders fall below 70% of the median householdincome in the U.S. (i.e. $35,000). I would consider this figure a reasonable approximation ofhow many Richmonders are at substantial risk of slipping into poverty. 2  
  3. 3. The third, finally, is a measure of extreme economic poverty, which are households making lessthan 20% of the median income, or under $10,000 a year. I call attention to this simply becausein looking at the data, it is striking how many Richmond residents fall into this lowest incomecategory, compared to the regional and national averages.[POWERPOINT SLIDE A]The first measure shows that nearly 36% of Richmond households fall below half the medianhousehold income line (under $25k). I think this figure is a fair measure of the percentage ofhouseholds who are experiencing substantial economic stress and deprivation in Richmond rightnow. Some of these households are not technically in poverty right now, but they are strugglingto make ends meet.The second measure shows that 48% of Richmond households are below 70% ($35,000) of themedian household income for the U.S. This is a reasonable estimate of the total number ofRichmond residents who either are deprived now or are at some substantial risk of falling intodeprivation.This is, or should be a startling figure. It suggests we should not be thinking about povertysimply as an isolated problem limited to a few neighborhoods, but as something which touchesnearly half the population of our city. But I think this is a reasonable estimate of the actualsituation.Jared Bernstein, formerly Vice President Biden’s staff economist, and the Economic PolicyInstitute have calculated “family budgets” for every metropolitan area in the United States. Thisbudget is an estimate of the cost of a decent standard of living that meets all core needs in agiven area. Specifically the budget includes the cost of housing (in the 40th percentile of an area’srent), food, child care, transportation, health care, other necessities for households of a givensize, and taxes. For a family of four with two adults and two young children, the estimated costof meeting these needs in the Richmond metro area, as of 2008, is $3970 a month, or $47,645 ayear. Just over half of Richmond families make less than that. Earning $48,000 a year impliestwo adults must have jobs at $12/hr, or more optimistically, one job at $24/hr or better.[POWERPOINT SLIDE B]But we know many households are single-parent. A two-person household of one adult and onechild needs nearly $3,000 a month to meet basic needs, according to Bernstein’s analysis, or$36,000 a year. Analysis of data from Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the mean hourly earnings for allworkers in the Richmond metropolitan area in 2009 was $19.79, meaning you’d have to have ajob considerably close to or even just above the average in order to get by in a single-earnerhousehold. 3  
  4. 4. What about the $12/hr needed for a two working-adult household—is that more achievable?Here is a list of average hourly wage per selected occupations (in the Richmond metro area) thatwe often associate with the working poor.[POWERPOINT SLIDE C]Security guards: $12.22Cooks : $9.98Fast Food Workers: $7.89Maids and Housekeepers: $9.14Landscaping and Groundskeepers: $11.04Bus Drivers: $14.46Child Care Workers: $8.23Receptionists: $14.31[Note: these figures are for wages and exclude benefits. BLS studies show that hourly workersearning less than $15/hr are significantly less likely than other groups to receive health benefits.Just 25% of workers in the lowest 25% of the wage distribution participate in a health plan.]Overall, some 25% of jobs in the Richmond metropolitan area pay less than $11.72/hr, and if youtake state and local government out of the picture, 25% of private sector jobs in the Richmondmetro are pay less than $10.77/hr. A couple who each had a job at that level would make justover $43,000 a year. Relative to a lot of people in Richmond, that is doing pretty well, and ifeveryone in Richmond did that well the city would be a lot better off. But even that is not enoughto meet the needs of a four person family budget, as estimated by Bernstein.Consequently, a great many households in Richmond fall well short of having enough money tomeet all these needs on their own. How are those households in fact getting by? Housingassistance through Section VIII and public housing certainly helps a lot. Some likely use lower-quality child care than the benchmark for the study; 17% of Richmond residents do not havehealth care coverage; some lack adequate transportation; some are utilizing Food Stamps orsacrificing adequate healthy nutrition. It is possible to survive at lower income levels than thefamily budget calculator benchmark. The point is that survival for the poorest one-third or so ofRichmond households requires either public or charitable assistance, significant cutbacks inconsumption in core areas compared to prevailing norms, or, often, both, and that life when youare poor or very poor often consists of painful, stressful and difficult choices between competingneeds. 4  
  5. 5. Now, I said I would come back to the question of our third measure of poverty in Richmond: theextreme economic poverty of those earning less than $10,000. Currently 14% of households inRichmond fall in that category, and 10.5% of all families in Richmond earn less than $10,000,compared to 3.6% of families in the metropolitan as a whole and 4.9% of families nationally. Byany measure, we have well more than our fair share of persons experiencing severe economicdeprivation.This suggests that in trying to tackle poverty in Richmond, we would do well not to think of “thepoor” as a single homogenous group with identical problems. In fact, the data seems to showthere are at least three categories of people we should be thinking about: the most economicallydisadvantaged; those who are just below or just above the poverty line; and those who for noware above the poverty line but remain at risk of falling back into poverty should they encounterjob loss, a major health problem or some other adverse event. These different groups likely havedifferent needs and will require different policy approaches.In my view, there are strong moral and practical reasons for putting quite a bit of effort intotrying to improve the situation of the worst-off group. But to build a true ladder out of poverty,we must also pay substantial attention to the question of what can be done to help those who maybe employed and may be able to meet many of their basic needs right now, but for whom makingends meet is still a major struggle; and we must pay attention to the concerns of the next groupup, those who are making ends meet but lack a buffer against adversity and remain vulnerable.And to put on my political scientist hat for a moment, the city and the mayor’s anti-povertyinitiative will be best served if we avoid framing the interests of the poor as somehow opposed tothose of the middle class. We need to instead show that successful, sustained effort to tacklepoverty in this city will benefit not just a small minority but a very large swath of our city’sresidents, and that making progress in this regard will be in the interests of everyone inRichmond.Here it is worth noting one important dilemma about trying to reduce poverty in an urbancontext: the tension between helping poor people escape poverty, and helping poor communitiesescape poverty. It is possible that we could make many improvements that helped poor peopleescape poverty, without making much visible improvement in the city of Richmond, qualitativelyor statistically. All that would have to happen is for the successful kids and adults to leave thecity as soon as they got the chance, and never come back; while the less successful stay in thecity. Breaking that cycle is a tough nut to crack, but we need to at least name it. In my view,recognizing this dynamic indicates that we need to be thinking in terms of building up assets,wealth, and opportunity on a community-wide basis, rather than just using an individual“escape” paradigm for thinking about poverty. This means thinking about creating anchoring,wealth and employment-generating institutions such as community banks, communitydevelopment corporations, community-based businesses for all of our impoverishedneighborhoods—that is, creating permanent assets that will stay in place to stabilize theneighborhood even after some people get a little richer and decide to leave the area. 5  
  6. 6. II. Thinking About Poverty HolisticallyNow I want to shift gears here and return to the idea that we should not be thinking aboutpoverty simply as a statistically defined economic condition. The ultimate reason for caringabout poverty is that we want people to have meaningful lives with a meaningful experience offreedom. Not having enough money to meet needs is one important form of disadvantage, but weneed to think about disadvantage in holistic terms. Other things matter to low-incomecommunities and individuals besides just money, and if we ignore them, we run the serious riskof causing more harm than help when we undertake anti-poverty public policy. And moregenerally, I think we need to be sure our focus is helping actual low-income people’s lives inRichmond improve, rather than solely focusing on improving the statistics.The Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen has argued that we should view povertythrough the lens of human development—expanding not just people’s bank accounts, butpeople’s capacities. Other scholars have taken it a step further and asked in very specific terms,what are the distinctive functionings of a well-developed human being?Below is one well-known list of functionings (or “capabilities”), associated with philosopherMartha Nussbaum and appended by Jonathan Wolff (with some further abridgements andadditions by myself).[POWERPOINT SLIDE D]Life: Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal lengthBodily Health: Being able to have good health, to be adequately nourished, to haveadequate shelter.Bodily Integrity: Freedom of movement and freedom from assaults and violence.Sense, Imagination, and Thought: Being able to use the senses, to imagine, to think andreason—and to do those things in a way informed by an adequate education.Emotions: Being able to have attachments to things and people outside ourselves; beingcapable of love (of self and others) and being capable of expressing one’s appreciation forothers.Practical reason: Being able to form a rational plan about how one’s life will go (and to acton the basis of that plan); being able to revise it as necessary.Affiliation (community): Being able to live with and toward others, to recognize and showconcern for other human beings, to engage in various forms of social interaction. Havingthe social bases of self-respect and non-humiliation. Not being discriminated against on thebasis of race, etc. 6  
  7. 7. Other species: being able to relate to animals, appreciate the natural world.Play: being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activitiesControl over one’s environment: Being able to participate in choices that affect one’s life.Equal opportunity to seek employment and have property.Abiding the Law: Being able to meet one’s basic needs without breaking the law orcheating other persons or institutions.Understanding the Law and Rights: Being aware of one’s rights and knowing how toadvocate for them. Being aware of benefits, opportunities to which one is legally entitled.Realistically, many people in Richmond, even under the best case scenario, are going to haverelatively low incomes for the foreseeable future. But this more nuanced view of human well-being gives us a way to think about what can be done to improve the lives of low-incomecommunities and individuals, so as to make the impact of low income less corrosive, lessharmful, and less likely to determine the fate of the next generation of children growing up inlow-income communities.In the context of Richmond, just reading this list of capabilities suggests a to-do list for action:what can be done to improve health care access in low income communities? To make citizensaware of their rights and opportunities? To expand access to employment? To improve access torecreation, and to nature? To provide educational development opportunities to not just childrenbut also adults? We could do much worse as a commission than using the capabilities in just thisway, as a checklist for improving the quality-of-life in all our communities.But I want to stress today two themes that come up from this list of capabilities and functioningthat I think are particularly relevant for Richmond as we try to address poverty and itsconsequences. I present these both as challenges to grapple with.The first is recognizing the central importance of social affiliation and social relationships—community—in any human life. Social networks are critical to sustaining and enhancing the livesof low-income people in Richmond. Those low-income people without access to social networksand support can be fairly described as our least well-off citizens. It is important to people’s senseof self that they feel like other people care about them, and that they belong to a community. Inmy own work with the grassroots organization Richmond Street Soccer, and I’m sure many ofyou have seen the same thing in your own work, just the simple recognition that somebody carescan have a powerful, even transformational impact on individuals in need. We need to pay closeattention to the networks of support and community that already exist in low-incomecommunities and make sure that we do not thoughtlessly dismantle or disrupt those networks.And we need to recognize the damage that comes from the stigmatization and isolation of low-income communities. The challenge—and it is a challenge—is to both respect and strengthen 7  
  8. 8. existing networks of support within low-income communities and to break down the wallsisolating our poorest neighborhoods from the rest of the city. Yet we can’t ever really be one cityif our affluent and low-income citizens lead essentially separate lives with no meaningful pointsof contact between them.The second is recognizing the importance of recognizing low-income persons as agents in thisprocess of addressing poverty, not objects of policy. The orientation must not be, as in 1950’sstyle urban renewal, what we should do to low-income communities, nor even the charitableorientation of what we can do for low-income communities, but rather the democratic orientationof what we can do with low-income communities and individuals. This means taking theknowledge and perspective of low-income persons seriously—by listening, and by giving low-income persons a meaningful voice in the policy decisions that impact them, as well as indeliberations about policy, such as this commission. It means making a serious effort to stepinside the shoes and brains of other people, including those whom we might be most likely tostereotype—the marginally employed 20 year old young African-American male who seeminglyhas no real life plan. We cannot make real progress without the community not just “buying in”but actively helping shape initiatives. And we cannot reach those who are seemingly most lost,most alienated, most at risk, without addressing and recognizing them as whole persons. Andwhen we recognize low-income individuals as whole persons, we have the best chance ofmaking the connections needed to produce real change, on the personal, social and economiclevel.Let me give you three short examples of what I have in mind.The first is Richmond Street Soccer, which is a grassroots organization devoted to using socceras a vehicle for personal development among homeless and formerly homeless people. For thepast several seasons, an eight member team has participated in the national Street Soccer USAtournament in Washington. Street Soccer is not a social service agency, although it has receivedimportant support from such agencies. Rather it’s a space for people to exercise and play in thecontext of a supportive community. This sounds trivial in terms of the wider issues of povertyand homelessness, but it’s not. The capability list I read before helps explain why—being able toplay is an important human need, and so is feeling valued as part of a community. So is having asense of purpose. For those who have stuck with it, affiliation with the street soccer program hasbeen a crucial support of community, a release from stress, and provided an expanded socialnetwork; our veteran players see themselves as leaders in the community. This in turn has helpedin their own struggles to find secure employment and housing. Just this past week, one of ourveteran players, Rodney Knight, received street soccer’s highest honor—he’s been named to theU.S. national street soccer team that will compete against sixty other countries at the HomelessWorld Cup in Paris next month. More importantly, Rodney now also has full-time employment,permanent housing, and is hoping to go to college to get a degree in education. 8  
  9. 9. The second example is probably known to many of you here, and it was the model forRichmond’s application for a Promise Neighborhood grant from HUD. This is the HarlemChildren’s Zone led by Geoffrey Canada. Now what is most interesting to me is not the charterschool in itself, Promise Academy, but the way in which the school is integrated with otherdeliberate efforts to address the comprehensive needs of the children and their parents, startingwith pre-natal parenting classes. Canada frames these efforts as giving low-income parentsaccess to the same information and insights on child development as middle-income parents.And while it will take years to see the full results of the Harlem Children’s Zone effort, Canadahas unquestionably succeeded in raising—dramatically—the expectations of the childreninvolved about what their future can look like. He has gotten kids to believe that their life isimportant and that they can and will make it, and hence they think differently about themselvesand their lives. Whether or not the specifics of this sort of model make sense or are replicable inRichmond, this is the level of effort and comprehensiveness that is appropriate if the goal is togive our kids the same chance as kids elsewhere.But you can’t reach all the kids unless also reach the parents, and address the core issue ofadequate remunerative employment. The third example is less well-known, and that is what isgoing on in Cleveland with the Evergreen Cooperative Fund. There the Cleveland Foundationhas launched a major anti-poverty initiative in the University Circle neighborhood, with the goalof creating living wage jobs in the green technology sector for neighborhood residents. Theyhave established three new businesses—a green Laundromat, a solar panel installation firm, andan urban greenhouse that will grow produce—and eventually plan to establish a $50 million fundaimed at starting least a dozen more firms. About $40 million in investment has already beenleveraged from some $5 million in seed capital. The key to this strategy is the participation of thecity’s universities and hospitals, which have agreed to give contracts to the new firms, allowingthem to get off the ground and be viable from the start, with the aim of building on that start tofind larger markets. The firms are organized as cooperatives, which does not mean they areanarchist operations consumed by endless meetings. Rather, it means that the firms arepermanently rooted in and committed to the neighborhood, that each worker in addition to awage gets a small profit share that is banked in an accumulating asset fund, and that the workershave a particular pride in these new firms—they feel like they are not just “working for theman,” but working for themselves and their neighborhood. This is an inspiring example of usingall the resources of the community to create new opportunities, and to do so in a way thatrespects the workers as a whole people. Again, whether or not the specifics of this make sensefor Richmond, this is the kind of bold and innovative approach that is needed to address thedepths of our problem.I will close by stressing what a challenging job we have. Many of the factors that affect povertyand well-being in Richmond are a function of the national economy and state and federal policy,things outside of our immediate control in Richmond. But we are not powerless to address this.There are significant resources in this city than can be leveraged to expand opportunity and 9  
  10. 10. improve quality of life. We absolutely must address the economic development issue by thinkingstrategically about both how to increase the number and quality of employment opportunities forour residents, and how to better prepare them to take advantage of those opportunities. But wealso must not neglect doing what we can do to improve the quality of life and effectivefunctionings of our low-income neighborhoods and households, and doing so in a spirit ofmutual respect. 10