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Friday, December 16, 2016

How Far We Have Strayed

In 1989, I moved to the suburbs to be near my parents. I worked as a substitute teacher with poverty level wages (yes, hard to believe) and at one point I was offered a job as a teaching assistant. When I said I could not support my family on the $8/hour salary I was offered, the principal asked how much I would need. I calculated the least I could get by with and it came to $15/hour. This was in 1989! Needless to say, the school district realized they could hire two people instead of me, so they did. I was fortunate to get a full-time sub position in January of that year and full-time employment the following fall. In the years between 2000 and 2006, poverty increased dramatically in the suburbs. (1) Like me, many of the poor had jobs, but lived paycheck to paycheck.

As a special education teacher during the 1990s, my students changed from mostly white, middle class families to diverse cultures (at one point I had seven different languages spoken in the homes of 20 students) with a much higher percentage of families in poverty. My last few years, over half of my students qualified for school breakfast and lunches. Often both parents would be working one or two jobs. Students came from homes where they might have shared a room with a grandparent or aunt, wore inexpensive clothing, and may not have had access to books, paper and pencils, let alone computers. 

How did we get so far off course in helping the poor? It helps to understand where we come from. The 1960s saw the first serious look at poverty in our country, with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement and the counterculture anti-establishment values. It was the idealsim of Head Start and Sesame Street, the War on Poverty and the first demarcation of poverty. (2) Here is how the poverty threshold was computed:

The poverty thresholds were originally developed in 1963-1964 by Mollie Orshansky of the Social Security Administration.  She published an analysis of the poverty population using these thresholds in a January 1965 Social Security Bulletin article.  Orshansky based her poverty thresholds on the economy food plan — the cheapest of four food plans developed by the Department of Agriculture.  The actual combinations of foods in the food plans, devised by Agriculture Department dietitians using complex procedures, constituted nutritionally adequate diets; the Agriculture Department described the economy food plan as being "designed for temporary or emergency use when funds are low."  (Orshansky also developed a second set of poverty thresholds based on the Agriculture Department's somewhat less stringent low-cost food plan, but relatively little use was ever made of these higher thresholds.)

Orshansky knew from the Department of Agriculture's 1955 Household Food Consumption Survey (the latest available such survey at the time) that families of three or more persons spent about one third of their after-tax money income on food in 1955.  Accordingly, she calculated poverty thresholds for families of three or more persons by taking the dollar costs of the economy food plan for families of those sizes and multiplying the costs by a factor of three — the "multiplier."  In effect, she took a hypothetical average family spending one third of its income on food, and assumed that it had to cut back on its expenditures sharply.  She assumed that expenditures for food and non-food would be cut back at the same rate.  When the food expenditures of the hypothetical family reached the cost of the economy food plan, she assumed that the amount the family would then be spending on non-food items would also be minimal but adequate.  (Her procedure did not assume specific dollar amounts for any budget category besides food.)  She derived poverty thresholds for two-person families by multiplying the dollar cost of the food plan for that family size by a somewhat higher multiplier (3.7) also derived from the 1955 survey.  She derived poverty thresholds for one-person units directly from the thresholds for two-person units, without using a multiplier.  The base year for the original thresholds was calendar year 1963.

Orshansky differentiated her thresholds not only by family size but also by farm/nonfarm status, by the sex of the family head, by the number of family members who were children, and (for one- and two-person units only) by aged/non-aged status.  The result was a detailed matrix of 124 poverty thresholds, although the figures generally cited were weighted average thresholds for each family size.

In her January 1965 article, Orshansky presented the poverty thresholds as a measure of income inadequacy, not of income adequacy — "if it is not possible to state unequivocally 'how much is enough,' it should be possible to assert with confidence how much, on an average, is too little."

While the poverty thresholds had been calculated on the basis of after-tax money income, they were applied to income data — the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey — that used a before-tax definition of money income; this was done because when the thresholds were being developed, the Current Population Survey was the only good source of nationally representative income data.  Orshansky was aware of the inconsistency involved, but there was no other alternative; she reasoned that the result would yield "a conservative underestimate" of poverty. (3)

Although government analysts expressed concern over updating these standards in 1965, action was delayed until 1981. A measure that decreased the number of homes below poverty was passed. Not until 1995 were recommendations made to revise the standards again. NRC's Committee on National Statistics’s Panel on Poverty and Family Assistance presented their findings in a report. (4) The results of this study?

Our major conclusion is that the current measure needs to be revised: it no longer provides an accurate picture of the differences in the extent of economic poverty among population groups or geographic areas of the country, nor an accurate picture of trends over time. The current measure has remained virtually unchanged over the past 30 years. Yet during that time, there have been marked changes in the nation's economy and society and in public policies that have affected families' economic well-being, which are not reflected in the measure. Improved data, methods, and research knowledge make it possible to improve the current poverty measure. (5)

The recommendations follow in the report (please access the link below for more information on it). 

In a book review by Richard L. Kaplan (6), he summarizes Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich, written in 2002. One of the book’s great themes is “that concentration of economic power inevitably corrupts the political process. (7)” A fascinating glimpse into the role the laws have played into the accumulation of wealth by the upper class, while the middle and lower classes suffer. Sending two family members to work in order to maintain middle class status, former securities like pensions and health insurance are becoming a thing of the past. “Concentrated wealth is able to distort democratic processes for private enrichment…(8)"

Sadly, the trend that was noticed in the early 2000s has only increased. Our newest elected official is in the one percent and his appointees are as well. One can only hope for a revolution.

1 Krone, Emily, Poverty in the Suburbs, Daily Herald, April 16, 2008

2 Fischer, Jocelyn and Hayes, Jeffrey, Ph.D., A Clearer View of Poverty: How the Supplemental Poverty Measure Changes Our Perceptions of Who Is Living in Poverty. An Examination of Poverty by Gender, Race/Ethnicity, Age, and Marital Status.,

3 ibid, accessed at

Measuring Poverty: A New Approach, Washington, D.C., National Academy Press, 1995

5 Summary and Recommendations.

6 Kaplan, Richard L., Economic Inequality and the Role of Law. Michigan Law Review, Vol. 101, No. 6, May 2003. Available at SSRN: accessed 12/12/16.

7  ibid,  p.1987

 ibid, p. 1992.

Friday, December 9, 2016

“Society doesn't like poor people.”1

The South Side, by Natalie Moore is a refreshing and penetrating look at the south side of Chicago. I have lived near Chicago for 80% of my life. I once visited my older brother, John, when he was a full-time substitute teacher in a school that painted the windows because of sniper fire. I have gotten lost in a neighborhood where no one spoke my language and in a neighborhood where residents told me to get back on the Interstate because it was not safe there. My youth group volunteered at Jane Addams Hull House. My younger brother worked for Catholic Charities building low-income housing for seniors in twenty high-poverty neighborhoods. I have driven into the Loop when I was living below poverty level and wondered why there is so much money and homeless people in the same area. Someone’s not tithing their 10%.

Natalie Moore has opened my eyes. Although I knew about red-lining, the act of refusing to sell homes to blacks, I thought the Supreme Court case in 1940 (Hansberry v. Lee) and the Fair Housing Law passed in 1968 had done away with it. In fact, in the 1980s, several suburbs conducted a study by sending black and white couples to potential home sales. The real estate agents steered them to neighborhoods according to ethnicity. During the Great Migration from the South to the North, whites fled neighborhoods when blacks moved in. What does this mean in terms of poverty and wealth? Black neighborhoods tend to have deflated prices and accrue less equity over time. That’s only the beginning of the handicapping conditions if you are black in Chicago. 

The public housing was the answer to the poverty on the south side. Using federal money, the first Mayor Daley built the homes between the Lake and the Interstate. The housing was not all bad. There were communities of women who shared resources and helped watch each other’s kids. The gangs became problematic, however, and the second Daly tore them down. When residents were given vouchers to move into other areas, only 1,460 families out of 16,000 were able to find neighborhoods that would accept them.  If any of you have priced housing in the city lately, it is getting unaffordable for the middle class now. In a court case in 1969 (Gautreaux v. Chicago Housing Authority), the judge ruled that CHA had deliberately engaged in discriminatory housing practices.

As a retired teacher, I am interested in all things education. Moore’s chapter on the school system made me boil. Resegregation has been taking place in all major cities and I intend to write an entire blogpost about that. One of the most sure-fire ways to improve the education of all children is to integrate the schools.A series of court cases supported parents’ rights to educate their children in better schools, federal officials would not insist on a plan for Chicago based on the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Title VI. Daley and Dirksen threatened to withdraw support from all federal education. A bussing plan in 1966 also went nowhere because of whites picketing. In 1971, Illinois State Superintendent of Public Instruction mandated integration and it was ignored. In 1973, Walker prohibited busing as a way to integrate schools. In 1979, the Illinois Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights cited a long history of contributing to segregation.4 A 1980 lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice went nowhere.
In 2009, Chicago was released from desegregation monitoring. Recent building of charter schools in all areas of the United States are, in this author’s opinion, just an effort to circumvent unions and resegregate school systems.

Moore’s book continues with chapters on food deserts in low-income areas, lack of investment in businesses, the portrayal of violence as the norm, the benefits of Mayor Harold Washington, and the things we love about Chicago, and I don’t want you to neglect them. I highly recommend her book and hope you will read it. I am focusing on poverty this year, so those chapters are less pertinent.

p. 82, Moore
p. 81, Moore
School Integration and Occupational Achievement of Negroes
Robert L. Crain
American Journal of Sociology
Vol. 75, No. 4, Part 2: Status and Achievement in the U.S.: 1969 (Jan., 1970), pp. 593-606
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
Stable URL:
Page Count: 14

4 Moore, p. 120

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Two Excellent Resources for More Information on Poverty

I attend church most Sundays, so I wasn't aware that WNYC has a series on poverty. I listened today and was amazed. They investigated some of the myths surrounding poverty. Here is their web site if you'd like to catch up with the series. I'll be binge listening today as I recover from a sleep study last night. For my deaf friends, there is a manuscript under each video.

There is also an article on Mother Jones called, "What If Everything You Knew About Poverty Was Wrong?" I recommend both of these. They appear to be based on actual experiences with neighborhoods and people in poverty.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Book Review: A Framework for Understanding Poverty, by Ruby Payne

Ruby K. Payne, Ph.D. A Framework for Understanding Poverty

Do you know “Which grocery stores’ garbage bins can be accessed for thrown-away food?” If not, you may not pass Ruby Payne’s quiz about hidden rules of the classes. I had noticed homeless men in my neighborhood, but never made the connection with the grocery store a block away. I had never lived without a checking account, electricity, a car or a phone.  Although I had lived in poverty for a year, Ruby opened my eyes to a culture that was fairly unfamiliar to me. This is a book review of her book, called A Framework for Understanding Poverty, which would be an excellent book for a book club.

Ruby Payne first makes twelve key points that she wants her readers to keep in mind; that poverty is relative, it occurs in all races and cultures, class is a continuum, generational and situational poverty are different, patterns have exceptions, individuals carry values they are raised with, schools and businesses work on middle class rules, we may have to teach middle-class rules to students in poverty, teachers must “provide support, insistence, and expectations,”
children may need to give up relationships to move upward, education and relationships can help students out of poverty and motivation for upward movement can be pain, a vision, a relationship and a talent. 

She begins with a definition of poverty as a lack of resources, listing the many different categories of resources that we may have without realizing it. With seven scenarios, she makes examples of family situations that have some resources, but still would be considered poor.

One entire chapter is devoted to language and its different registers. We are all familiar with the difference between formal and informal language, but discourse differs as well. Stories are told for entertainment, not to illustrate a point. Hidden rules of lower, middle and upper classes were discussed. A contrast of generational poverty with middle-class school values shows the difficulty of meeting the needs of the students to get them out of poverty. A discussion of emotional resources lists ways school personnel can be role models to their poor students. To demonstrate support systems, Payne uses another scenario to show how nine strategies can help. She also demonstrates behaviors related to poverty and strategies to help them. The chapter on improving achievement. Intelligence can be underestimated, solutions can be poorly fitted to the situation, but with proper mediation, students can develop the cognitive strategies necessary to succeed. Using the work of Reuven Feuerstein, she groups these strategies into “input, elaboration, and output.” She finishes this discussion with a list of responses identified by Virginia State Department of Education as being effective for students. 

Her book ends with a chapter on the importance of relationships and how they are the primary motivators for students in poverty. The final pages are the charts of poverty compared to median incomes and her research notes, which are extensive.

The criticism of Payne is that she is racist and classist. She is telling educators how to help students overcome behaviors that may inhibit their success in school, not telling us how to learn more about the culture that the kids come from. She sees challenging behaviors as something to be overcome, not cherished. She is speaking from the point of view of the middle class about the need for others to learn middle-class behaviors instead of speaking as a voice of the poor. You’ll have to decide for yourself, but I found her suggestions helpful. Until we come up with a better system, we have to work with the one we have.