Well the new data confirms some of our worst fears. The Census data released today reveals that the US in 2009 had the largest number of Americans living in poverty in the 51 years that poverty has been measured, 43.6 million people, and the highest poverty rate, 14.3% since 1998. Millions more would have been in poverty without the safety net — the expansion of unemployment insurance alone kept 3.3 million out of poverty. While Pennsylvania was not his as hard as some other areas of the country, that is cold comfort indeed.
No doubt these are trying times for low income Pennsylvanians. The Census Department will be releasing data on September 16 that shows what many of us already know – that poverty in Pennsylvania has grown and that unemployment figures are still unacceptably high. The census data will show that as early as 2008, well before the Great Recession started poverty in Pennsylvania had grown to encompass 12.1% of all Pennsylvania families; if we had real time data, that number would be significantly higher. (To be included in these poverty statistics means that a family of four (with two children) had a family income below $21,834 and for a family of three (with two children) recorded household income under $17,346.) Incredibly, one in every six Pennsylvania children (16.4%) now lives in poverty, a number that is unacceptably high. Meanwhile current unemployment data for July 2010 shows that 9.3% of all Pennsylvania workers are unemployed (statistics for subgroups, such as young workers and minorities are, of course, even worse).
This sounds like a bleak picture and in many ways it is – at CLS we see the results of this economic train wreck every day – in increased foreclosures and evictions, a dramatically increased number of marginal workers filing for disability benefits and every other public benefit that may provide some help. But while things are very bad, there are still bright spots that are worth remembering. Pennsylvania has used Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) to create an innovative jobs program that has employed approximately 12,000 people. The Medicaid program has grown to provide health care to 17.7% Pennsylvanians. This may not seem like a positive for those who rail against government programs, but ask the family that has insurance for their kids or their grandmother, or the young cancer victim who can fight her potentially fatal disease and you will understand why the program is so valuable during this Recession. Similarly, Pennsylvania, at the urging of CLS and other advocates has expanded the SNAP (aka the food stamp program) to provide assistance to 13.2% of Pennsylvania families in their hour of need. (Astonishingly in 10 Pennsylvania counties, more than 50% of those receiving help under SNAP are children — Adams, Berks, Chester, Dauphin, Franklin, Lancaster, Lebanon, Lehigh, Pike and York Counties.)
These safety net programs are, for the most part, doing their job. Could we do better to alleviate the suffering of the unemployed, the hungry and the sick? Of course we could! But as the new poverty figures are announced, we should take some comfort in knowing that low income American families have not been abandoned. These programs invest in our future and alleviate tremendous amounts of human suffering.
The poet Yeats once wrote about an equally challenging time that “the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Let us strive for the best reject calls to cut programs that are sorely needed. That is the message I would urge on Poverty Day.
Way to Work Pennsylvania and similar subsidized jobs programs in 36 other states and D.C. are at risk of ending on Sept. 30 if the TANF Emergency Fund is not extended. These programs have helped struggling businesses and put people to work at a time of nearly 10% unemployment and as thousands more of those out of work exhaust their unemployment benefits each day.
As many as 250,000 workers nationwide – up to 12,000 of them in Pennsylvania – are at risk of losing their jobs on September 30th if Congress fails to extend the TANF Emergency Fund.