Lawmakers Ponder Fiscal Cliff, Blacks Already in Poverty Ditch

By Freddie Allen
NNPA Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – More than 11 million Blacks lived below the poverty line in 2011, including an estimated 5.2 million that languish in severe poverty, according to a recent report.

The yearly report by the Half in Ten campaign found that, even though Blacks comprise 13 percent of the total population in the United States, they accounted for 27.6 percent of Americans living below the poverty line, defined as “$23,018 a year for a family of four. Less than 1 in 10 of those living below the poverty line in 2011 were White.

The Half in Ten campaign works to shift public and political will to slash poverty in half by 2020 and is a collaborative effort by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the Coalition on Human Needs and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

The campaign collects data on several key economic and political indicators, tracing the nation’s commitment to programs and policies designed to assist struggling individuals and families as they climb out of poverty.

The national poverty rate at 15 percent in 2011 was nearly identical to the 15.1 percent mark set in 2010. And this is no accident, according to the report.

“Widening income inequality over the past 40 years, the proliferation of low-wage work with poverty-level wages, and conservative obstructionism is stalling progress,” the report stated.

According to the Half in Ten report, more than half of all the income earned in 2011 went to the top 20 percent of American earners and the top 5 percent grabbed 22.3 percent. The bottom earners were left with a thin 2.3 percent slice of the pie. Those sandwiched between those two extremes –60 percent of Americans – earned 45.7 percent.

Children are often the greatest victims of poverty. More than 42 percent of Black children live in poverty compared with 15 percent for White children and 13.6 percent for Latino children.

“In fact, child poverty lost our economy more than half a trillion dollars a year in increased health care costs, worse educational outcomes, lower worker productivity and increased criminal justice expenditures,” the report stated.

Erik Stegman, manager of the Half in Ten Campaign said that, “When we’ve got child poverty rates the way they are now, there’s no way that we’ll be economically competitive in the future.”

A number of measures enacted by the Obama administration’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act helped working-poor families avoid sliding into poverty.

More than 2 million Black families avoided poverty in the last two years when President Obama expanded the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit.

The Unemployment Insurance extension provided a bridge between jobs for more than a 1 million Blacks. Even though the unemployment rate for Blacks is often double the rate of their White counterparts, Blacks are less likely to receive unemployment benefits.

Many of these measures are set to expire December 31, if the Senate, House of Representatives and the president can’t reach a fiscal compromise.

According to a study by the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based independent, public policy research group, Black workers receive unemployment insurance benefits at a 23.8 percent rate, while White workers collected unemployment insurance at a 33.2 percent rate.

This is due in part to the way the regulations for the unemployment benefit system often penalize workers with short or disjointed employment histories. Low-paid workers and less educated workers also have a harder time getting UI benefits.

In an Urban Institute blog post titled, “Has Unemployment Insurance Helped Those Who Need It the Most?” Margaret Simms, director of the Institute’s Low-Income Working Families project wrote:

“The fact that African Americans are less likely to receive benefits after taking all these other factors into account means that many low-wage, unemployed, African American workers are likely suffering more economic hardship than their white counterparts, often with fewer assets to fall back on.”

Many Blacks with thin financial cushions can ill-afford the continued economic hardships and uncertainty that come with a protracted fight on Capitol Hill.

In the “State of the Dream 2012,” a report published by United for a Fair Economy, a nonpartisan advocacy group that promotes economic and social equality researchers, found that “more than 41 percent of Blacks and 37.4 percent of Latinos lack enough net worth to subsist for three months at the poverty level without outside income. By comparison, only 16.4 percent of White households are in that position.”

The Dream report stated that social safety net programs such as Social Security and unemployment insurance can help Black and Latino families “from falling through the cracks.”

The Half in Ten report recommended a number of steps that our lawmakers can take to cut poverty in half in the next 10 years, including increasing the minimum wage to $10 an hour, extending earned income tax credit and the child tax credit, expanding access to quality health care and funding the Supplemental Assistance Program in the the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act

“One of the things that we’re trying to do is say, ‘You don’t have to make a decision between cutting the deficit or supporting these programs. You can do both responsibly,’” said Stegman. “We can cut the deficit and invest in these programs that will move our country forward in the long-term.”

He added, “We have to make the right policy decisions to keep our economy working for everyone and not just for the ones at the very top.”