Mass. poverty levels halved by assistance programs, says report

May 9, 2018

As reported by Paige Smith, Boston Business Journal:

Massachusetts poverty levels would double if not for assistance programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), according to a study by two local nonprofits.

The Massachusetts Association for Community Action, or MASSCAP, and MassBudget measured the Bay State’s poverty levels using the supplemental poverty measure, or SPM, which accounts for household costs covering basic needs like food and shelter, as well as non-cash benefits like SNAP. SPM also adjusts for cost of living across the country.

“The new measure of poverty that the census has developed looks more carefully at the actual cost of making ends meet, which is higher in Massachusetts than other states because housing costs are higher,” MassBudget president Noah Berger said in a phone interview. “The traditional measure of poverty just looks at cash income and a threshold that was set in the 1960s.”

Therefore, Massachusetts is among only 13 states whose SPM rates are higher than traditional poverty rates, despite the fact that over 900,000 of its residents have received assistance from public benefit programs since 1964.

The report also ranked cities where half, or more than half, of household income goes to rent alone. Springfield ranked first, where more than one-third of renters spent half, or more than half, of income solely on rent. Lawrence ranked second, followed by Lowell.

High costs of living definitely contribute to poverty, according to MASSCAP executive director Joe Diamond, but low wages and other structural challenges are also to blame, as outlined in the report.

“Over half of the people that we serve work,” Diamond said. “Many of the people work two jobs, but still, folks need help.”

Berger said that stagnant wages, in the scope of a booming economy, have hindered progress.

“Most poor people are working, and when wages are not rising for low- and middle-income families, it’s very hard to make progress in reducing poverty or raising the living standards of moderate and middle-income households,” Berger said.

Though wages may not be rising for working individuals below the poverty threshold, Diamond sees potential progress in other areas.

“We know the commitment is there, so what we really look forward to doing is, for example, to target training that would prepare people for the jobs that are current and the ones that will be emerging.”

He also mentioned that some Massachusetts industries offer opportunities for growth, including service, education, health care and technology.

“We look forward to even stronger connections between those sectors and low-income people in terms of meeting the workforce needs of companies and the employment needs of people living with low incomes,” he said. “Societies are more stable when the economy works well for everybody.”

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