Cost-burdened families stuck on a treadmill to nowhere

AntiPovertySoldierIn his famous 1960 essay “Fifth Avenue, Uptown,” legendary author, activist and expatriate James Baldwin wrote that “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor; and if one is a member of a captive population, economically speaking, one’s feet have simply been placed on the treadmill forever.”

Baldwin, writing about his native Harlem, was specifically speaking to how those in New York’s poorer neighborhoods spent more for lesser quality goods than those who lived in more affluent areas of the city. Yet, as New York Times Op-Ed columnist Charles M. Blow notes, Baldwin’s prose is “particularly prescient today, if in a different manner than its original intent.”

This notion was affirmed this September when the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition on Human Needs (CHN) released a startling new report on the heels of the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 American Community Survey. The report, titled The High Cost of Being Poor in the U.S., states that the nearly 44 million Americans officially classified as poor get far less value from their scant resources, which threatens their “health, child development, and employment.”

One of the highlights from the report reveals that nearly 60 percent of American households “with annual incomes below $20,000 spend more than half of their income on rent alone.” The term “cost-burdened” refers to households that put 30 percent or more of their total income towards housing costs. Those that are forced to pay more than 50 percent of their earnings toward housing, such as those identified by the CHN report, are considered “severely cost-burdened.”

This issue of cost-burdened households in the Twin Cities is of particular concern, as the availability of affordable housing options remains limited for low-income residents. According to the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation’s Minnesota Compass, approximately 86 percent of Minnesota households with annual incomes less than $20,000 are classified as cost-burdened.

Furthermore, nearly 72 percent of all Twin Cities households earning between $20,000 and $34,999 and more than 40 percent of those in the next category earning up to $49,999 per year are cost-burdened. Especially affected by this trend are Ramsey and Hennepin counties, which rank second and fourth out of 87 Minnesota counties for the highest percentage of cost-burdened households. By comparison, Anoka, Dakota, Carver, Scott and Washington rank 29th, 32nd, 42nd, 45th and 50th respectively among all Minnesota counties.

Of course, cost-burdened households are not the only indicator of how expensive it is to be poor in America. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that low-income families generally encounter higher food prices at their local super markets.

Even when these households decide to purchase inferior items to stretch the dollars further, they still end up spending a disproportionate amount of their income on food. As illustrated in the CHN report, poor families are excessively subject to a myriad of fees and penalties for late payments or unpaid bills that can damage or destroy credit, result in repossession of property, and often lead to unemployment, eviction and homelessness.

Other basic needs such as health care and child care often push low-income families off the cliff financially. Consider that many households are forced to make the absurd decision at the end of the month whether or not to buy food, purchase medical prescriptions, or pay the utility bill. In fact, U.S. Census data indicates that if medical co-pays and other out-of-pocket costs were considered in determining the poverty line, an additional 11 million Americans would be counted among the ranks of the poor.

The CHN report also demonstrates how out of reach child care is for many, noting that a family living right on the poverty line with two young children will spend nearly three-quarters of their income toward this child care assuming they were “paying the national average cost.” The inability to afford child care for low-income families has a decidedly detrimental effect on children’s educational and health-related outcomes as well as the opportunities to escape the cycle of poverty later in life.

The CHN suggests that while anti-poverty problems do make a difference and keep as many as 18 million people out of poverty each year, many of these initiatives “don’t reach all that are eligible, and other programs would do more good if their benefits were higher or if more people were eligible.”

I’ve written ad nauseam in this column regarding the fact that the formula to determine poverty in the United States is severely outdated, having never been changed since being established in 1964. Among other things, this formula fails to account for geographical differences in housing, transportation, health care, child care, utilities and other household costs.

In spite of the overall decrease in poverty during the previous year, many estimates suggest that half of all Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. If this is accurate, then in addition to the 44 million people currently below the poverty line, another 119 million are barely hovering above it.

We simply cannot allow this to be the case any longer. For the well-being of our nation and our nation’s children, we must invest in ourselves and work to fight poverty on every front. Our future depends on it.


Clarence Hightower is the executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104.