Despite latest poverty figures, Senate lets worthy jobs program lapse

Friday, October 1, 2010

THE CENSUS BUREAU reported this week that more than one in four children in the District of Columbia lives in poverty. That includes 36 percent of African American children -- compared with 3 percent for non-Hispanic white children. And the District was not alone in receiving grim news. The overall national child poverty rate is nearly 21 percent. Poverty rose last year in 31 states and fell in none. In some ways, the District is better off than most jurisdictions: The only places where median household income rose in 2009 were the District (2.8 percent) and North Dakota (5.1 percent).

Children who grow up in poverty are more likely to be poor as adults. They lag behind early in intellectual development, tend to attend lower-quality schools and are more likely to drop out of high school. It's not surprising that poverty would rise during an economic downturn. But the current recession -- marked by increased levels of long-term unemployment and homelessness -- could have a particularly brutal and long-lasting effect on the children hit by it.

Another troubling development revealed in the latest poverty statistics, both locally and nationwide, is the continuing increase in the number of households living in deep poverty, defined as half the poverty rate. This translates to a paltry $5,478 for an individual and $10,977 for a family of four. The nationwide census report on poverty, released this month, showed that the number of people in deep poverty hit a record high last year, accounting for 6.3 percent of the population -- or 44 percent of those living in poverty.

The poverty level is an admittedly imperfect measure of households' economic status -- it does not reflect non-cash benefits, such as food stamps -- but the trends are worrying. The numbers underscore the critical importance of safety net programs. For example, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities calculates that although 3.7 million people fell into poverty in 2009, another 3.3 million people would have joined their ranks without the extension of unemployment benefits. Thursday marked the expiration of a program, launched as part of the stimulus package, that placed 250,000 low-income parents and teenagers in private-sector jobs. The House approved a one-year, $2.5 billion extension, but it has been blocked in the Senate. It is sad that this successful effort could be allowed to lapse in the face of these sobering figures.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company