A half-century after President Lyndon B. Johnson formally declared a nationwide war on poverty, the subject remains divisive in politics, perplexing for social advocates and a daily reality for many.
As a nation, we are neither winning nor losing the war, said Adam Schneider, a social worker at Heath Care for the Homeless and chair of the Maryland Alliance for the Poor. Rather, “we aren’t really fighting the fight.”
In the United States, where the median household income is $53,046, 14.9 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In Maryland, where the $72,999 median household income is the highest in the nation, only 9.4 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, but in Baltimore City that number shoots to 23.4 percent.
In 2013, the federal poverty line for one person was $11,490 and for two people $15,510. For each additional family member, the poverty line added $4,020.
The majority of those living in poverty are women, according to 2012 Census data, and almost 23 percent of American children live in poverty. In Baltimore, one in every five families lives below the poverty line.
“It’s staggering when you consider that Maryland is the wealthiest state in the wealthiest country this side of the world,” said Schneider. “It’s staggering when you consider that the stock market gained 25 to 30 percent over the course of the past year, and we have 30 percent — over 30 percent — of the children in Baltimore living in poverty. It’s astonishing.”
Exacerbating the problem, said Schneider, is the fact that income, health and education are all very intertwined. Through his work with homeless and low-income Baltimoreans, Schneider said he has seen the disparities close up. In the less than five miles between neighborhoods such as Upton, where the median household income in 2011 was $17,200, and Roland Park, where the median income was $117,972, the difference in life expectancy can be as much as 20 years.
“People growing up in very poor areas tend to have poor schools, tend to have poor economic opportunities growing up,” he said. “So much of the disparity we see in income is just magnified when you look at educational opportunities, when you look at health opportunities, when you look at opportunities for employment.”
Those at Advocates for Children and Youth, a Silver Spring-based organization, contend that students living in poverty are often behind their peers when they enter kindergarten.
“Historically, children from low-income families have less access to early education,” said David Beard, the organization’s education policy director.
While programs such as HeadStart target those families with the lowest incomes, families living just above the poverty line often don’t qualify for similar programs, limiting access to early childhood education.
In 2013, there were 379,499 students receiving free and reduced school meals in Maryland, 71,334 of whom lived in Baltimore City and 51,636 of whom lived in Baltimore County, according to the Maryland Report Card. To qualify for a reduced price, the family income must be between 130 percent and 185 percent above the federal poverty line. For free meals, the family income must be at or below 130 percent of the poverty line.
The government measures for poverty have not been updated to reflect the increased cost of living, said Tracey Paliath, director of economic services at Jewish Community Services.
“The official poverty rate doesn’t even take into account things that we consider obvious in society now,” she said. “Those tools haven’t been updated to reflect what society looks like now.”
The federal poverty rate doesn’t account for essential needs such as a telephone line or Internet access, she said. For Jewish families, the Food Supplement Program, formerly known as food stamps, does not give families enough assistance to eat kosher diets.
JCS supplements families’ food budgets so they can keep kosher and offers extra assistance for High Holiday meals as well. The organization also helps Baltimore-area families with utility bills, rent and mortgage assistance, food, school supplies and other necessities.
Outside of families with young children, Paliath said she’s seen a wave of impoverished seniors and even people in their 50s who were laid off during the Great Recession and were never able to recover.
“We thought they’d have resources available to help them in their older years, and they’re not going have it,” she said.
And while there is a focus on affordable living for seniors, Paliath said her organization and others such as CHAI (Comprehensive Housing Assistance, Inc.) are discussing how to implement affordable housing across the age spectrum.
“We do something for the poorest of the poor, but there are some people out there who are really hurting, and there’s nothing really being done for them outside of what we’re doing in the private community, in the nonprofit community,” she said.
For those families living with limited resources, with an economic gap comes an educational achievement gap. And while the War on Poverty helped narrow the achievement gap and put a focus on closing gaps in funding in schools, the achievement gap still very much exists, said Beard.
What Beard and his colleagues hope to see are some alternative-schooling models that take into account complex family situations — families with parents who work the night shift, students who work and students who help take care of younger siblings. ACY is also rallying behind universal pre-kindergarten, securing proper funding at the state and federal levels and more skills-based learning for students.
In the meantime, the minimum wage, something heavily supported by social advocacy groups, has become a hot-button issue in the state of Maryland, with some counties raising their own minimums and Gov. Martin O’Malley promising that the issue will be at the top of the legislature’s 2014 agenda.
Other groups, such as the Maryland Alliance for the Poor, are advocating for reforming the way employers allow their workers to take paid sick time and assessing whether or not property managers who ask for rental applicants’ legal income, whereby they cannot include any assistance they receive from the government, can legally discriminate against low-income renters.
“I think there isn’t a silver bullet, and that’s the problem. Everyone wants this to be fixed quickly,” Beard said. “We’ve seen major gains in the last 50 years, but we’re still not there, so I think people are frustrated and want to know what really works.”