Poverty topic of community action council forum at Mechanics Hall

Oct 5, 2018

As Reported by The Telegram:

U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern said he was glad to be in Worcester Friday – where more than half of city children are near or below the federal poverty threshold – rather than continue to hear from legislators he said were out of touch with the needs of the poor.

In fact, the congressman told attendees of the Worcester Community Action Council-sponsored poverty forum at Mechanics Hall he’d rather experience a root canal than be on Capitol Hill, where it’s grown “unfashionable” to worry about the poor and advocate for better wages, ending hunger or investing in additional affordable housing.

The ranking Democrat on the House Subcommittee on Nutrition, Mr. McGovern said the House produced a “terrible” farm bill that’s cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, by millions of dollars, and he said he’s grown tired of listening to the argument that people can get off food stamps by simply getting a job.

“The majority of people on SNAP aren’t even expected to work, because they’re children, senior citizens or disabled,” Mr. McGovern said.

Another common belief that’s wrong, he said, is people on food stamps go out and have “lavish dinners.” Mr. McGovern said the average SNAP benefit is about $1.40 per person per meal. “I don’t know what the hell they’re talking about,” he said.

While frustrating, Mr. McGovern asserted, the various challenges to eradicating poverty are bipartisan political conditions that can be overcome.

“You have to utilize this system, and you have to fight for improvements” at the local, state and federal levels, he said.

The forum, “Finding a Way Forward: Greater Worcester,” was co-sponsored by the WCAC and the Massachusetts Association for Community Action, which commissioned a new report called, “Obstacles on the Road to Opportunity: Finding a Way Forward Together.”

Report author Nancy Wagman, the “Kids Count Director” of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center spoke to the group.

Her report notes that programs that help families make ends meet, like the Earned Income Tax Credit, SNAP, fuel assistance, school lunches, Head Start, and Social Security reduced the number of people in Massachusetts living in poverty by almost half, and reduced the number of children living in poverty by more than half. The programs provided resources for approximately 920,000 people in Massachusetts.

But public programs alone can’t eliminate poverty, she said. People need jobs with good wages that increase over time.

A family’s hard work no longer paves the road to opportunity, Ms. Wagman suggested. While the economy continued to grow in recent decades, it didn’t translate into increased wages for low- and moderate-income families.

Beginning in the 1970s, wages stopped growing at the same rate as the economy, and household incomes for most families barely grew.

Her study noted that national economic policies stopped emphasizing wage growth, while Congress allowed the real value of the minimum wage to decline, and labor law enforcement agencies weakened protections for workers.

Ms. Wagman told attendees that, although Massachusetts has a relatively high median income of $98,364, there are wide disparities throughout the commonwealth. Worcester’s median income is $50,571.

Housing costs present a particular challenge to opportunity, she said, and in Worcester County, up to 23 percent of renters devote 50 percent or more of their incomes toward rent. It doesn’t leave much for renters’ other expenses, she said.

But Ms. Wagman said the commonwealth had a recent victory regarding the upcoming increase in the minimum wage, from $11 to $12, effective Jan. 1.

It will benefit about 22 percent of children in Massachusetts because their parents make minimum wage or just above it, she said.

The event also yielded opportunity for a seven-person panel discussion.

Ron Waddell, coordinator of WCAC’s Safe & Successful Youth Initiative, spoke of his service to high-risk, urban youth ages 14-24. Mr. Waddell said he works with the top 2 percent of the most violent offenders, but he prefers to refer to them as “the 2 percent most in need of love.”

The program coordinator said 80 percent of his clients are African-Americans or Hispanics wrestling with poverty, access to opportunities, but mostly their identities – based upon how they’ve been through systems that have caused them to be “dehumanized.”

Mr. Waddell said his clients need employment opportunities that provide mentoring and value them as humans.

He said he was moved to tears when a client who’s working at a rental-car agency told him, “Had I not been in that relationship with you, I know for sure I’d either be dead or back in jail.”

A fellow panelist, executive director of MassHire’s Central Region Workforce Board Jeffrey Turgeon told Mr. Waddell: “That’s what makes the work we do worthwhile.”

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