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Where are the poor?

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The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has new information about the working poor I find really interesting. The image that comes to mind when we hear the word ‘poor’ is of the inner-city poor – people, often African-American or Hispanic, who subsist on wages from low-paying jobs or barely get by on Aid to Families With Dependent Children. Those of us old enough to remember the television sitcom, “Good Times,” probably envision the Evans family. (On which, by the way, Janet Jackson co-starred before she even had photo-worthy breasts.) Father James and mother Florida worked full-time jobs, but were never able to move out of low-income housing. But, people like the Evans are not alone at the bottom of the barrel economically.

The words “working poor” conjure up images of industrious, if unlucky, families, struggling to make ends meet in urban settings.

The reality in Washington state is a little different, with a greater percentage of rural tax filers qualifying as working but poor than their counterparts in big cities, according to a study by The Brookings Institution.

The report found that 15 percent of all tax filers in rural Washington areas claimed the Earned Income Tax Credit, a break designed to help lift the working poor out of poverty. In contrast, only 9 percent of taxpayers in the state’s major cities took advantage of the break.

Those data place Washington among states where wealth and jobs are concentrated in large metropolitan areas, while the highest levels of those employed but stuck in poverty are found in the country, the report said.

Though the national data shows less of a bifurcation, the rural demographic is well-represented among the working poor in other states, as well.

Both in Washington and nationwide, though, the numbers of working poor rose in recent years, as the U.S. economy struggled to create jobs and rebound from recession. From 2000 to 2002, the number of U.S. families claiming the earned income tax credit rose 8 percent, according to the Brookings study. In Washington, the number of families rose 8.6 percent.

The worst of rural poverty is in the South, which has a long tradition of barely sustaining some of its citizenry, the International Herald Tribune reports.

Families in the rural South are more likely to earn low incomes than families in any other part of the nation, says a study released Tuesday by the Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy.

In rural communities from Maryland to Texas, 30 percent or more of all families claimed the earned income tax credit, designed to lift working poor families out of poverty by refunding some federal payroll taxes. The study charted earned income tax credits claimed on 2001 tax returns.

The report does not consider race, but it is likely minority status would be a characteristic related to poverty in the rural South as well as urban areas. However, in the rest of the country, the rural poor would be largely white. Here in the Pacific Northwest, which has the highest unemployment rate in the country and the whitest population, rural counties have been racked with hunger, substandard housing and increasing rates of drug abuse for years. I wonder if changing the face of poverty from brown or black and urban to white and rural will have any impact on how people feel about providing meaningful relief.

The authors of the study belief the new data should effect how the government responds to poverty.

The researchers concluded that the evidence should prompt politicians to re-evaluate their assumptions that the working poor are confined to distressed inner-city neighborhoods. The total number of working poor families living in rural areas, small towns and suburbs are three times the number who live in large cities.

To qualify for the EITC an adult must work, but earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level. A wage-earner who works a 40-hour week year-round and has two children would need to make no more than $15 per hour to qualify.

Read more about the impact of the Earned Income Tax Credit on the lives of the poor at the Brookings Institution’s online library or download the full report.

This entry aslo appeared at Silver Rights.

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  • Tom

    It doesn’t help that citizens are taxed to death. We pay income tax to state, federal, and local governments. We pay taxes on our land, food, water, electricity. We pay taxes on our gasoline, heating oil, and almost everything that is in existence!!

    The cycle of high taxation is one of the biggest factors in chipping away at disposable income, especially for lower-middle class families.