“The Poverty Line is Garbage”


            New Orleans      ACORN has often been critical of the United Way and its corporate coziness for contributions supporting band-aid services, rather than real change for lower-income families.  In the early days of the organization in Arkansas, our members even did an action at one of their local fundraising lunches where they voiced demands about what was really needed.  The jury is still out, but a partnership between KABF and the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, has us taking a better look at the efforts of many of the country’s United Way agencies to change policy by focusing on what they call ALICE or Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed families.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal did a good job of making the ALICE case, particularly in raising up the need to more accurately set the poverty line that is often the benchmark for determining benefits.  As the head of the Connecticut United Way stated flatly, “The poverty line is garbage.”  The reasons are straightforward.  The Census Bureau’s annual figures from the DOL’s Bureau of Labor Standards base as much as one-third of the calculation on the average grocery basket, when escalating housing costs for rent and utilities, is sucking up more and more of a family’s income.  The poverty line is currently only $31,200 for a family of four and that just doesn’t cover costs.

There are millions caught over the edge of the poverty line.  The United Way says ALICE families number…

about 36 million American households, or 29%, met the criteria in 2021, the most recent year for which data is available. That is up 18% from 2010. Preliminary data show the same trend continuing through 2022.

That’s a lot of US homes, for sure, and the United Way didn’t come up with this ALICE campaign just based on figures in their calculators.  They run more than half of the more than 200 call centers for 211 “…that connect people to local health and human services such as food, housing, child care, utility assistance, crisis intervention, disaster response information and more.”   In Arkansas, since 2019 “…211 has connected hundreds of thousands of individuals and their families across the state.”

A lot of the response is online and connects callers to a database of service referrals, but there are also people on the other side of these free calls and 800 numbers as well.  What call operators are reporting underscores part of the uneven economic recovery, especially for families after pandemic income supplements ended.  Even working families with income over $100,000 are calling because they can’t make groceries given all of household costs.  Two-worker parented families have no savings or ability to handle emergencies.

Too many states, especially in the South, are setting benefits as low as possible.  The federal government and states are basing eligibility on a multiple of the poverty line for families qualifying for a host of services and benefits.  If the poverty line doesn’t reflect reality, then people suffer.  Some members of Congress have advanced a bill to more realistically set the poverty level, but given the dysfunction and general election year inertia, there hasn’t even been a vote.

This has to change.