The recent Census report regarding income, poverty and health insurance coverage in the United States for 2006 got quite a bit of media attention. Yet, perhaps the least reported but most significant statistic is the increase in individuals who are living at less than 50 percent of the poverty level. Clearly, people living at this income level have a very difficult life, struggling to meet their most basic human necessities. When compared to the 2000 Census, there has been an increase in the total number of people, roughly 5.3 million, living below the poverty level. During the same time frame (2000-2006), there has been an increase of 3.2 million people living at less than 50 percent of poverty. This basically means that of the people that have fallen into poverty during these last six years, the fastest and largest growing segment, roughly 60 percent, has been those living at less than half the poverty level. The difference between a family living at less than 50 percent of poverty (less than $10,000 per year) versus a family under 100 percent ($20,000 a year) is huge. Obviously, all poor families are desperately struggling and are living in difficult circumstances. However, we are somewhat cavalier about the growing number of people that are living on less than $10,000 a year.
It would be difficult to deny that many of these families are in this desperate circumstance because of state and federal government policies which have drastically limited the assistance available to them. Families that receive Ohio Works First cash assistance, funded through the federal TANF Block grant, must have a gross income of less than 50 percent of poverty level in order to meet the initial means test for eligibility. Even worse, the cash benefits that we provide these families is only 28 percent of the poverty level. The Ohio Works First program serves over 120,000 children.
Furthermore, there is an increasing number of families who are not eligible for cash assistance due to time limits, sanctions and other program limitations. We are forcing more families to combine households just to survive. This increase in household size without an increase of income is driving more families to live further and further below the federal poverty level.
Other detrimental program policies include the failure of the federal government to resolve the eligibility problem for Social Security Disability and SSI. Currently, 70 percent of initial applications are denied and a majority of people must file for a hearing with an administrative hearing officer in order to have benefits established. The waiting time to get these hearings is frequently as much as two years. During that wait, many of these disabled individuals have no income whatsoever. This, coupled with the virtual elimination of programs in Ohio to provide any financial assistance for those individuals 18 to 65 without children, leaves a large number of people who are either forced to double or triple up in housing simply because they have no income.
The country was horrified to see families in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina who had no place to live, no food, no medical care and were struggling to survive. We are far less sensitive to the fact that we are driving more and more families and individuals into these similar desperate circumstances by design and choice rather then as a result of a natural disaster.
[where: Athens, Ohio 45701]