WASHINGTON, D.C. — The good news from the U.S. Census Bureau Sept. 12 was that the poverty rate dropped for the third straight year in 2017 and median family incomes ticked up 1.8 percent to nearly $61,400.
The government reported that 12.3 percent of Americans, or about 39.7 million people, lived in poverty. In 2016, the poverty rate stood at 12.7 percent, about 40.6 million. All demographic groups — white, black, Hispanic and Asian — saw declines in poverty last year.
In comparison in the aftermath of the Great Recession, the country’s poverty rate stood at 15.9 percent, about 48.4 million people, in 2011.
Catholic Charities officials nationwide welcomed the news but also told Catholic News Service that the positive trend has not meant that they are serving fewer low-income families and individuals.
Further, in some communities the lack of affordable housing has exacerbated income inequality as low-wage earners, the unemployed and some minorities get priced out of burgeoning high-end housing markets.
“I’m not ready to release the party balloons because there are some real needs still out there,” said Robert McCann, president and CEO of Catholic Charities Spokane in Washington state.
“The data is at least mildly promising, but I think there is a very big problem in our country with the income inequality gap,” McCann said. “This is what Pope Francis talks about, for good reason, because the gap regardless of poverty statistics seems to be growing.”
Laura Roesch, chief executive officer of Catholic Social Service of the Miami Valley in Dayton, Ohio, said the turnout at the agency’s emergency food pantry has remained steady in recent years, which means staffers have been busy. She said low-wage jobs are the culprit.
“It’s people who are working who can’t get by and at the end of the month, money gets tight,” Roesch said. “We have not seen the drop we had been hoping to see in the emergency food programs.”
With an economy that once had a strong manufacturing component, Dayton has been slower to recover from the Great Recession. Roesch has seen some expansion in technology jobs, but that most new jobs in the agency’s service area are in low-paying service industries.
“Our clients are working, but they aren’t getting by because they aren’t getting paid as much,” she said.
It’s those low-wage earners that Catholic Charities USA has been addressing in meetings with members of Congress. The agency has worked overtime promoting federal support for important social safety-net programs as well as the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit, two measures that benefit moderate- and low-income working families.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps, has been a top priority as Congress hurries to finalize a new five-year farm bill by the end of September.
Without continued funding for SNAP and other programs, up to 27 million people would fall into poverty, said Dominican Sister Donna Markham, the agency’s president and CEO.
What also worries Markham and the nationwide network of service providers is the deep cuts in spending for housing and social services, energy assistance, job training, health care and education in the fiscal year 2019 budget proposed by the White House.
Markham said she believes the proposed cuts are designed to help reduce a steeper budget deficit resulting from the 2017 tax cut bill.
“If those cuts happen, then we’re back at square one,” she told CNS.
The Census Bureau data showed that Mississippi had the highest percentage of residents living in poverty of any state at 19.8 percent last year, down from 20.8 percent in 2016. Right behind are Louisiana and New Mexico, both at 19.7 percent. For the record, in Puerto Rico the poverty rate stood at 44.4 percent.
John Lunardini, chief operating officer at Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Jackson, Mississippi, told CNS the gains the Census Bureau recorded had “not yet” reached the agency’s urban and rural clients.
“The amount of phone calls we receive from people seeking direct-service assistance like food and help with light bills have not decreased. The people who are homeless have not decreased,” he said.
“When you talk about a 1 percent decrease in the state with the highest poverty, it’s not a lot of people. Unemployment may be lower in Mississippi, but does that mean living wage jobs have gone up?” he asked.
Elsewhere, the lack of affordable housing is causing emergency shelters to fill and stay filled. Even people and families with a regular, if low, income have turned to shelters for assistance.
In Denver, the unemployment rate has hovered between 2.5 percent and 3 percent for a year, but that has not offered any consolation to people in search of affordable housing, said Michael Sinnett, vice president for shelters and community outreach at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Denver.
“The degree of people experiencing homelessness in the Denver area continues to grow. We’re creating homelessness because of rising rental costs,” Sinnett said.
“It’s not because they are poverty-stricken,” he added. “They just can’t pay those rents. They have no savings and it puts them on the street.”
Case managers at the agency’s Samaritan House shelter on the eastern edge of downtown have a difficult time finding residents housing within its standard goal of 120 days, Sinnett said, because “affordable housing is very difficult to find.”
Adding to the growing need for affordable housing nationwide is a shift in priority by the Department of Housing and Urban Development from funding emergency shelters to rapid rehousing and permanent housing options.
For example, Pam Terrell, community services division director at Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois, said there are not enough housing units in the seven counties of the diocese to meet the existing need and no solution is on the horizon.
She said the HUD shift “sounds wonderful in theory,” but that the new criteria the federal agency has put in place “doesn’t match up with what the greatest needs are.”
“As a result you will see more people on the streets.”