Pearl River Hancock County is not the poorest county in Mississippi by a long shot. My mother was born and raised in Sunflower County in the Mississippi Delta. The poverty rate there is over 38%, more than twice the 17.3% rate along the Pearl River where I’m sitting now. The 11.3% US poverty rate is more than one out of every ten people, which is ridiculous, just as the rates in Mississippi are tragic. As all the statistics point out, way too many of our sisters and brothers hidden in these numbers are children. It also turns out that, despite everything, a huge number are also the elderly.
Americans of all persuasions and political leanings like to think that for all of our national faults, at least we take care of our elderly. There are national programs like Social Security and Medicare that cover them all at some level. It’s not like they are unemployed men or single mothers trying to raise children, who are often the whipping dogs for conservatives who want to see them hanging by their bootstraps. The reality is different. The Census Bureau reports that the poverty rate for the elderly jumped to 10.7% in 2021, a hair’s breadth from the national rate, after having been at 9.5% in 2020. Face it, the average national Social Security payment, which individuals earned from working, it is important to remember, is $1792 monthly or $21,504, and, yes, that’s a far sight better than welfare payments for families that don’t hit half that number in states like Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, but it’s still not a lot to live on, and that’s the average, meaning a whole lot of people are making much less, because their jobs paid less and work was more scarce for them. Average rent alone in Hancock County is $944 per month and a one-bedroom apartment is $780, and that alone would take a chunk out of Social Security checks.
Elderly poverty has been persistent. After progress in the 60s and 70s, “The decline really slowed in the 1990s and hasn’t improved significantly since,” as an expert noted recently in the Times. Raising benefit payments would make a huge difference, but as I wrote in Citizen Wealth, that’s a climb in our political and cultural environment. As I noted then, and when ACORN campaigned for “maximum eligible participation,” many agree that “enrolling more older people in existing programs could have real impact.” Five million people who should be getting food stamps for example, because of their eligibility, are not on the rolls. Ramsey Alwin, head of National Council on Aging, notes that “about $30 billion is left on the table every year that could help with food and medicine and basic needs.”
Not getting the money in the hands of people who need it is either bureaucratic ineptness or just plain meanness. We could fix a lot of this with automatic enrollment. We could trigger benefit payments based on income reports in the IRS databases on income tax return filings. We could make enrollment for benefits part of the process of all governmental interactions, just as we have made progress in registering voters when they get their drivers’ licenses. We could invest in hot spot interventions where the Census Bureau has found less than average areas of benefit participation. When it comes to children and the elderly, nudges are not a solution, direct action and real implementation programs would be.
There’s some confusion on the issues of poverty in America. When some shrug and quote or misquote the Bible saying the “poor will always be with us,” they are overlooking the fact that this is not a call to deliberately guarantee that people are poor by keeping them that way, but a plea to act to care for the poor and end poverty.