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Public policies play critical role in combating MA’s poverty, report says

Jule Pattison-Gordon

Escaping poverty takes more than hard work. It also takes government policies. That was the gist of Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center’s early September report on the state of workers in Massachusetts.

With wages stagnating or growing slowly for all but the top earners, employment is not always a way out for many families. The vast majority — about 71 percent — of adults without disabilities who were at or near the poverty line in 2014 worked full- or part-time. And among those living in poverty, blacks were the most likely to be employed in full-time positions.

“We have folks [in the union who are] working multiple jobs — well over 40 hours per week — and they’re still struggling,” Tyrék Lee, executive vice president of 1188 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, told the Banner.

And wages are not the whole picture: Another barrier is jobs that come with few employee benefits or employers that avoid offering benefits entirely by only assigning part-time hours.

While better than the national rate, poverty in Massachusetts has grown. Since 2000, the number of families living below the federal poverty threshold increased by 2.2 percent — meaning more than one out of every nine people earns less than $24,000 for a family of four.

The bright note? Boosting minimum wage and providing public benefits have a strong impact on keeping families afloat and helping some stay above the poverty line, MassBudget reports.

Policy impact

Wages did rise from 2014 to 2015 for the state’s middle- and working-class, with the number of jobs rising as well. According to the MassBudget report, while the middle class saw wages rise of 3 percent on average, for the working-class the jump was more significant: 7 percent — bolstered by the state’s minimum wage increase. This increased the average working-class salary from $9.08 per hour to $9.74 per hour, when adjusted for inflation.

“It shows state policy really matters,” Noah Berger, MassBudget’s president, told the Banner. “When you raise minimum wage, we see wages for the bottom 10 percent of our workforce go up by 7 percent this year. Those are people whose wages have not done well for decades.”

Another set of policies that is having an impact: public benefits such as earned income tax credits, SNAP nutrition benefits (food stamps) and child tax credits. Taken together, these three kept 920,000 residents out of poverty each year between 2009 and 2013 — 200,000 of them children, according to MassBudget.

A living-wage assessment tool created by Amy Glasmeier, MIT professor of economic geography and regional planning, calculates that a family with two adults and two children needs each adult to earn about $17 per hour in a full-time, year-round job to afford basic necessities in Boston, Newton or Cambridge. For such a family in Springfield, they would need to earn closer to $15 per hour.

On the web

MassBudget’s report:http://www.mass budget.org/reports/swma/index.php” class=”_blank”> http://www.mass budget.org/reports/swma/index.php

2014 American Community Survey: http://tinyurl.com/j7c5qy5

2015 American Community Survey: http://tinyurl.com/z5da9xk

Census Bureau’s Income and Poverty in the United States 2015 report: https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2016/demo/p60-256.pdf

Race and employment

Disparities are evident across races as well. Among those in poverty, black adults were the second-most likely racial demographic to hold jobs and the most likely to have those jobs be full-time, according to the MassBudget report. In 2014, approximately 76 percent of black adults living in poverty were employed, of which 55 percent were full-time.

Asians had the highest employment rate among those in poverty and were most likely to work part-time. About 78 percent of poor Asians worked in 2014, with nearly 41 percent in part-time positions. As for other groups, almost 70 percent of poor Latinos worked (43 percent full-time, 27 percent part-time) and 70 percent of poor whites worked (nearly 50 percent full-time, about 21 percent part-time).

Among those in poverty working part-time, half worked at least 20 hours a week for more than six months in 2014, according to the report.

Nation and state

Federal Census Bureau data released in mid-September show that nationally, while economic inequality remained stark, earnings rose across all income levels. The boost is largely due to growth in employment and an increase in people in full-time year-round positions, the Census Bureau’s Trudi Renwick told the Associated Press.

In 2015, the median American household’s income increased by 5.2 percent over 2014 — the first increase since 2007. Similarly, income for the poorest 20 percent of the population rose by 6.6 percent. The official poverty rate dropped by 1.3 percent, as 3.5 million people rose above the poverty line.

The impact was felt less in Massachusetts, where the median wage increased at about half the national rate between 2014 and 2015, growing by 2 percent compared to the national 3 percent, according to information from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

While nationally blacks, Latinos and whites saw median household incomes rise, the effect was mixed in Massachusetts. Nationally in 2015, non-Hispanic black households’ median incomes grew by 4.1 percent over the prior year, according to the Census Bureau’s Income and Poverty in the United States 2015 report.

But in Massachusetts, black households’ incomes saw little movement: their median income dropped slightly from $42,114 in 2014 to $41,732 in 2015, according to the American Community Survey.

Nationally, Hispanic households’ income rose by 6. 1 percent, and locally by more than 10 percent. In Massachusetts, between 2014 and 2015, Hispanic/Latino households’ median income grew from $34,507 to $38,195 according to the American Community Survey.

Non-Hispanic white household incomes grew nationally by 4.4 percent, and locally by about 0.019 percent. In MA, white household median income rose from $75,598 in 2014 to $77,091 in 2015.