New poverty numbers are misleading

Census data overlook other facets of the problem

NEW CENSUS NUMBERS released last month saw incomes rise by 5 percent nationally and the poverty rate dropping to 13.5 percent from 14.8. The news made major headlines. Many are celebrating. And yes, it is the right direction, but these numbers paint a misleading picture.

A look behind the numbers shows our families are being short-changed. There was virtually no improvement in Massachusetts’ poverty rate. Around Boston, the high cost of housing often stunts any progress. A minimum-wage worker living in Boston must work 97 hours a week to afford the rent on a two-bedroom apartment. That’s just not sustainable.

We still have one of the highest wage gaps in the country. We have tremendous wealth and success, yet one out of every four Massachusetts residents currently lives in a working-poor family and cannot afford to meet basic needs. And while wages at the bottom may have gone up slightly, many families are simply working more hours.

The way the federal poverty level is calculated (based mostly on the cost of food) is also long overdue for reform. It fails to capture other rising costs such as housing, child care, and health care, all of which far outpace the annual inflation of food prices. The national poverty numbers do not reflect how difficult it is for low income families to find level ground.

No matter how flawed, these new poverty numbers can help begin an important discussion, one that has failed to capture the attention of most political candidates this year. It wasn’t long ago that those running for president talked daily about poverty on the campaign trail – even making it fundamental to their agenda. This year, we have seen little meaningful debate.

In an effort to change that, Economic Mobility Pathways (EMPath) is bringing together advocates, academics, nonprofits, government, and business leaders to discuss ways to disrupt the cycle of poverty. Just this week, leaders from more than 30 states will meet in Boston at the biennial Disrupting the Poverty Cycle conference to discuss meaningful steps we can take that will lead to improved outcomes for families.

An open dialogue is critical for sharing innovative approaches and discussing the latest findings guiding how we can address both the systemic causes and the psychological effects of poverty. For example, new studies demonstrate how the stress of living in poverty negatively impacts our capacity for problem-solving, multitasking, optimism, and persistence. It’s a cycle that can impact generations, unless we invest in breaking that cycle through direct intervention.

One model we have been refining provides coaching for economic mobility. It is now a proven approach to deal with the effects of poverty at the individual level. Through regular interaction with a well-trained mentor, individuals develop the skills to focus on goals, measure progress, and regain momentum after facing setbacks. In addition, we are expanding that mentoring to focus on whole families – an intergenerational approach that incorporates goal setting for children as well. And we are pleased that effort has shown early success.

To address poverty head on, we must develop comprehensive, multifaceted approaches focused on simultaneously improving family stability, well-being, education, financial management, and employment. We need the cooperation of government, nonprofits, and the private sector to support this effort in meaningful ways. And we need to come together, as we will this week in Boston, to find new innovative solutions.

Meet the Author

Meet the Author

Martha Coakley

Former attorney general, State of Massachusetts
It is time for an honest discussion about poverty. And it is time for real solutions that result in lasting economic mobility for families.

Elisabeth Babcock is president and CEO of Economic Mobility Pathways (EMPath), an organization focused on created new avenues to economic independence for low-income women and their families. Martha Coakley is of counsel at Foley Hoag LLP, an EMPath board member, and a former Massachusetts attorney general.