The Colorado Center on Law and Policy released a report in December entitled “Overlooked & Undercounted 2018” with very little fanfare. The information in the report is hugely important in understanding the reality of poverty in our communities, especially for families. The main takeaway is that the data used in defining poverty is flawed, leading to a dramatically understated number of families who are struggling to get by.
To understand the issue fully, it helps to know how poverty is currently defined. The federal government, through the Social Security Administration, adopted a methodology for determining the yearly income threshold for households to be classified as poor – the so called poverty line – in 1963. The formula is based on a basic monthly food budget for a family as determined by a household consumption survey conducted in 1955. The poverty line is determined by multiplying that subsistence food budget by a factor of three, based on the assumption that food makes up one-third of a family’s expenses. The formula employs an equivalency scale to adjust for larger or smaller families and it is amended annually using the consumer price index. Currently, by this math, the federal poverty line for a family of three is $20,780 in gross annual income.
There are plenty of problems with this dated methodology, not the least of which is that it fails to account for geographic differences. As a result, there is no differentiation between the cost of living in Pueblo County versus Douglas County. Likewise, the measure does not distinguish between who is in a family. For example, a family of three can be a married couple with one child or a single mother with two children: two vastly different financial situations.
“Overlooked & Undercounted” provides a more modern and logical analysis of the numbers called the Self-Sufficiency Standard. Not only does this approach address the differences in geography and family composition, it also uses a more extensive assumption of expense beyond food to include housing, child care, health care, transportation, miscellaneous items and taxes, and tax credits. When calculated in this manner, the annual income needed for a single parent with two children to make ends meet jumps from the standard $20,780 to $45,816 in Cheyenne County, $57,711 in El Paso County, $57,998 in Lake County and $76,543 in Douglas County.
Using this data, the report states that more than 25 percent of all households in the state “lack enough income to cover just the necessities, such as food, shelter, health care, and child care.” That is significantly higher than the 8 percent of Colorado households that are officially designated as poor based on the official poverty line numbers. “Overlooked and Undercounted” addresses the true nature of poverty in our communities and should give us a sense of urgency around addressing the vulnerability of families in our neighborhoods, schools, and parishes.
The implications of this different calculation of poverty are far reaching, especially for Christians. In “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis’ 2013 apostolic exhortation, the Holy Father addresses the responsibility of the faithful to the poor. “We are not simply talking about ensuring nourishment of a “dignified sustenance: for all people, but also their ‘general temporal welfare and prosperity.’ This means education, access to health care, and above all, employment.” The Pope’s directive to respond to the root causes of poverty is consistent with the fundamental message in the Self-Sufficiency Standard; quick fixes only bring temporary relief. Instead, our work must help offset the rising costs for families including housing, health care, and child care. It also must look at improving wages, through training, education, and advocacy.
The application of the Self-Sufficiency Standard also helps to shine a light on the fact that families, and more specifically, children, are experiencing poverty at a far more profound rate than many of us realize. This reality is especially poignant in wealthier communities, like Douglas County, where the cost of living is dramatically higher. Service sector jobs in Castle Rock or Highlands Ranch cannot possibly match the $76,543 yearly salary needed for stability, creating a “hidden poor.”
Regardless of the community in which you live, think about the fact that one in four families in Colorado lack the income to cover necessities the next time you are sitting at mass, or see a group of elementary school children, or are talking to co-workers: statistically we encounter a lot more people struggling to make ends meet than we are likely aware. For these families, an accident, prolonged illness, job loss, or car breakdown will most certainly bring catastrophic, negative, life changes.
We speak of our poor and vulnerable often as those who are battling homelessness. It is easy for the images of people sleeping on benches, or lined up for a meal at the soup kitchen, to become a symbol for our response to Christ’s call to serve the “least brothers of mine.” Surely, those people need our love and support; however, as the Self-Sufficiency Standard (and Pope Francis) point out, the long-lasting solutions will only come from addressing the precarious financial situations that so many of our families find themselves dealing with, before they end up on benches and in soup kitchen lines.