Monday, September 26, 2011

Rise in poverty threatens Florida’s future

Contributed by Daniella Levine
Originally published by the Miami Herald.

For 16 years, Catalyst Miami has connected families with the services they need. Our office used to see a steady trickle of people; that trickle has become a deluge.
Recently, we helped a social worker with years of experience apply for SNAP (formerly food stamps); he has been unemployed for several years. Senior volunteers with management, finance or marketing experience work for us at minimum wage. We see every day that the middle class has become the new poor.

So I was not surprised when the Census Bureau reported that the number of Americans living in poverty had risen for the fourth year in a row, from 43.6 million to 46.2 million. More than one in seven people, including more than one in five children, lived in poverty in 2010. The picture was equally grim in Florida, with preliminary data showing the poverty rate rose from one in eight in 2007-8 to more than one in seven in 2009-10.

As troubling as these numbers are, they understate how many Americans struggle to make ends meet. The Census Bureau considers a family of four to be living in poverty if its income is below $22,314; most studies suggest families need at least twice that to pay their bills.

People become poor when they cannot find work. Today, one in 10 workers in Florida and one out of 11 nationally are unemployed. We all know someone who has been unemployed: Almost one in three workers experienced unemployment or underemployment at some point in 2009. Nationally, six million workers — that’s how many people live in Tennessee — have been out of work for at least six months. These workers have spent their savings and many have exhausted their unemployment benefits.

For those living in or near poverty, persistent hardship is a fact of life. A Gallup poll shows that nearly one in three Florida families with children have had times in the last two years when they did not have enough money to buy food. Florida has the highest rate in the nation of people struggling to keep a roof over their heads: nearly 700,000 households pay more than half their income in rent. And one in four Floridians has no health insurance.

Poverty and unemployment also have longer term consequences. Unemployed workers lose critical job skills. Poor children’s health and development suffers, and they do worse in school, threatening their ability to become productive workers as adults. Seniors in poverty can’t afford the healthcare they need to stay strong and independent. That limits our capacity for sustained economic growth and harms us all.

It doesn’t have to be this way. President Obama’s jobs package would reduce the number of people falling out of the middle class and build a stable, strong economy. In Florida it would create over 100,000 jobs directly through investments in transportation, education and communities; it would also fuel more jobs by reducing taxes, while extending unemployment benefits.

This month, a congressional “super committee” will begin developing a plan to reduce our federal deficit. The surest way to reduce the deficit is to get people back to work and paying taxes. The “super committee” should incorporate in its work essential components of the president’s jobs bill. It should ask millionaires and profit-rich corporations to pay their share in taxes and cut expensive contracts and other waste in our defense budget. Attempts to reduce the deficit through cuts in healthcare or other essential services are bound to fail because they will reduce jobs, cripple economic activity, and shrink tax revenues.

This is no time for policymakers in Washington to be sidetracked by political squabbles. Our country and our state cannot thrive when so many people are struggling. We must act now.

Daniella Levine is the founder and president of Catalyst Miami, formerly the Human Services Coalition of Dade County.

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