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Poverty in Upstate Metropolitan Areas: Myths and Realities

We live in an era in which long-held attitudes about race have been heightened by political campaigns that attempt to mobilize fears among white voters about minority group members and immigrants.  These appeals have ranged from claims that President Obama is a Muslim who was born in Kenya and claims that criminal undocumented immigrants endanger our country to descriptions of a black congressional candidate born in upstate New York as a “big-city rapper.”[1]  But, the scapegoating of “others” by candidates is not new.

With the concentration of poor black and Hispanic people in central cities, some politicians have characterized the poor as “others” by stimulating racist stereotypes – disparaging them as dishonest, lacking in ambition and willingness to work.

For example, Ronald Reagan claimed the existence of a “welfare queen”, who supposedly cheated the government of $150,000.[2]  Josh Levin, in “The Welfare Queen” describes Reagan’s line of argument, “When he ran for president in 1976, many of Reagan’s anecdotes converged on a single point: The welfare state is broken, and I’m the man to fix it. …. In Chicago, they found a woman who holds the record,” the former California governor declared at a campaign rally in January 1976. “She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.”[3]

The story was untrue.  The real welfare queen had defrauded the government of $8,000 using a few false identities.[4]

Reagan was not alone in stoking resentment against poor beneficiaries of government assistance based on racist imagery.  Donald Trump more recently claimed that, “I know people that work three jobs and they live next to somebody who doesn’t work at all. And the person who is not working at all and has no intention of working at all is making more money and doing better than the person that’s working his and her ass off.”[5]  Trump also claimed in 2011, the existence of “a food stamp crime wave.”[6] Neither of these claims is supported by evidence.

Like much of the public, Trump apparently believes that most black people are poor.  The New York Times reports that “Trump also said to black voters: “You’re living in poverty; your schools are no good; you have no jobs.”[7]

Commonly held perceptions about poor people limit our understanding of poverty.  Many people think of poor people as typically being members of minorities who live in central cities and do not work.  Many believe poor people to be lazy and responsible for their own poverty.

But the reality is different.  In upstate New York, those who are poor are more likely to describe themselves as white, not Hispanic, than black or Hispanic.  As many poor people live outside central cities in metropolitan areas as live within them.  While it is true that a smaller percentage of people living in poverty work than those who don’t live in poverty, among families in poverty a majority have at least one worker.  Of those people in poverty in upstate metropolitan areas who do not work, between one third and one half have a disability.

The misconceptions have consequences.  Those who see people in poverty as “others” are more likely to ascribe their condition exclusively to lack of personal responsibility, ignoring other factors, like education, disability, racial discrimination, and family structure.

Poverty in Upstate Metropolitan Areas

More than one in seven (540,000) residents of five upstate metropolitan areas – Albany-Schenectady-Troy, Buffalo-Niagara Falls, Rochester, Syracuse, and Utica-Rome – lived in poverty in 2016.  About the same percentage – 14% — were in poverty in these upstate metropolitan areas as the nation – 15%.[8]

Most people view poverty as primarily a problem of the central cities.  Concentrations of poverty in upstate New York cities are far higher than in suburban areas.  In most upstate metropolitan areas, more than 30% of residents live in poverty, compared with about 10% in parts of metropolitan areas outside central cities.

For residents under 18 years old, the differences in poverty rates between central cities and portions of metropolitan areas outside central cities are even more striking.  Almost half of the people under 18 living in major cities in metropolitan areas west of Albany-Schenectady-Troy live in poverty, compared with 15% or less in suburban portions of metropolitan areas.

But, the concentration of poverty in upstate cities does not tell the full story.  In each metropolitan area, about half of the people in poverty live outside central cities.  In the Rochester and Syracuse Metropolitan areas, more than half lived outside central cities.

For example, in the Syracuse metropolitan area, 34% of city residents live in poverty, while 11% of those living outside the city are poor.  But, the population of the city of Syracuse is only 21% of the metropolitan area total.  As a result, more than half (55%) of the people living in poverty in the Syracuse metropolitan area live outside the city of Syracuse.

Other metropolitan areas show similar patterns.  55% of poor people in the Rochester MSA live outside the City of Rochester.  49% of poor residents of the Albany-Schenectady-Troy MSA live outside central cities.  47% and 43% of poor residents in the Utica-Rome and Buffalo-Niagara Falls MSA’s live outside central cities.

Because only one in ten people living outside central cities is poor, the suburban poor are relatively invisible despite their relatively large numbers, while those living in central cities, with higher poverty concentrations, are much more visible because of their concentration.

How do central city residents living in poverty differ from those living outside central cities? The most significant way in which they differ is in racial identification.

Race

Self-identified race is by far the most important difference between central city residents in poverty and poor residents of metropolitan areas living outside central cities.

In each upstate metropolitan area, more than 60% of poor residents of areas outside central cities identify as “white alone, not Hispanic or Latino.”  In upstate central cities, the picture differs.  Three quarters or more of central city residents living in poverty identify as Hispanics or people of other races.

In the Rochester metropolitan area, 19% of city residents living in poverty identify as white, non-Hispanic, or Latino, while outside Rochester, 81 percent of poor residents identify as non-Hispanic/Latino whites.  In the Syracuse metropolitan area, 25% of city residents living in poverty identify as non-Hispanic or Latino white, while outside Syracuse, 76% of poor residents identify as white alone, not Hispanic or Latino.

Overall, 64.6% of all residents of upstate New York[9] living in poverty identify as white, not Hispanic or Latino.  But, because of the high concentration of poor people in central cities, city residents living in poverty are more visible than those living in suburbs.  For that reason, many people believe that people living in poverty are primarily members of racial minorities, even though overall, in most upstate metropolitan areas most poor people identify as “white, non-Hispanic or Latino.”

  • In upstate New York, only in the Buffalo-Niagara metropolitan area did non-white residents make up most people living in poverty.
  • In the Albany-Schenectady-Troy, Syracuse, and Utica-Rome metropolitan areas, more than six in ten people in poverty identified as “white alone, not Hispanic or Latino.”

Similarly, there is a commonly held belief that most minority group members are poor.  But, in the United States, and in upstate New York metropolitan areas, most black and Hispanic residents do not live in poverty.  More than six in ten lived above the poverty line in 2016.

  • About nine of ten white, non-Hispanic, or Latino households do not live in poverty.
  • The fact that a much larger percentage of minority residents of upstate metropolitan areas live in poverty than people who identify as white is a real problem, but the common perceptions that most poor people are minority group members, and that all (or most) blacks are poor are not true.

Work

In upstate metropolitan areas, a much smaller percentage of people over 16 living in poverty than those not in poverty worked full or part-time during 2016.  More than 80% of people between 16 and 64 not in poverty worked in 2016 in upstate metropolitan areas, while between 40% and 50% of those in poverty worked. Note that this data includes people who are disabled, caregivers, and those in schools and colleges.

Poor people who work in upstate metropolitan areas were much more likely to work part-time than full-time in 2016.  In contrast, most workers who were not in poverty worked full-time. About 80% of working people in poverty in upstate metropolitan areas reported working part-time in 2016.  In contrast, only about one-third of working people not in poverty reported that they worked part-time.

Disability

In most upstate metropolitan areas, more than one-quarter of people aged 20-64 living in poverty reported having a disability.  The percentage of people who did not have disabilities living in poverty in upstate metropolitan areas in 2016 is smaller – between 8% and 10%.

Of those living in poverty who had a disability, only 16% to 22% were in the labor force in 2016 (people who are employed or unemployed and seeking work).  Less than 10% were employed.

Poor people who did not have a disability were much more likely to be in the labor force – more than 55% in most upstate metropolitan areas were at work or seeking employment.  But, even so, among people in poverty who were not disabled in 2016, less than half were employed in 2016.

People not living in poverty were far more likely to be in the labor force and employed in upstate metropolitan areas in 2016 than those in poverty.  More than 80% of people without disabilities were in the labor force, while more than 40% of those with a disability were.

Another important difference between people in poverty and those not in poverty can be seen in the impact of unemployment on poor people.  Much higher percentages of poor people in upstate metropolitan areas in 2016 – both disabled and not disabled – were not employed and seeking work than people who were not disabled.

  • Less than one person in twenty who did not live in poverty and had no disability was unemployed in upstate metropolitan areas in 2016.
  • Among the population not in poverty with one or more disabilities, about 10% were unemployed.
  • Among those who lived in poverty in upstate metropolitan areas, 35% to 47% of people with disabilities were unemployed.
  • Among poor people without disabilities, about a quarter were unemployed.

Among people with disabilities, more than half of those who were not working reported having a cognitive, ambulatory or independent living disability.  Only about one-quarter to one-third of those who worked reported having one or more of these disabilities.

Work and Household Arrangements

More than 60% of people who did not live in poverty in 2016 lived in married-couple families.[10]  But, for those in poverty, other living arrangements are more common.  In most upstate metropolitan areas, no more than 20% of people in poverty are in married-couple families.

  • In most upstate metropolitan areas, less than 20% of people in poverty live in married-couple families.
  • Less than 15% of people not living in poverty live in households headed by a female with no husband present, but almost 35% to 42% of those living in poverty lived in households headed by a female householder with no husband present.
  • Less than 20% of people not in poverty live in other household settings – mostly non-family[11] living arrangements, but in most metropolitan areas, between 30% and 40% of people in poverty live in other living arrangements.

A closer look at employment in different kinds of families shows the relationship between poverty, family structure, and work.

Families with No Workers

Overall, most families, including those in poverty, reported one or more workers in 2016.  But, a smaller percentage of those in poverty in both married-couple families and families headed by female householders with no husband present work than those not in poverty.

  • Between 33% and 38% of married-couple families living in poverty reported that no one worked in 2016. About 15% of married-couple families not in poverty reported no workers.
  • For families headed by female householders with no husband present living in poverty, between 38% and 45% reported that no one worked. For those not in poverty, between 8% and 9% reported no workers.

Families with One or More Workers

In the case of married-couple families vs. families with a female householder where no husband is present, there is little difference in the percentage of families with one or more workers.  However, for both kinds of families, twenty to thirty percent fewer families in poverty report having at least one worker in 2016 than families that are not in poverty.

  • In upstate metropolitan areas, between 56% and 66% of families in poverty reported having one or more workers in 2016.
  • For families not in poverty, between 83% and 92% of families reported having at least one worker in 2016.

Families with Two or More Workers

Families that are not in poverty are much more likely to have two or more workers than those in poverty.   But, family structure played an important role in the number of family members who reported working in 2016. Married couple families were more likely to have two or more workers than female-headed families with no husband present.

  • For families in poverty, the difference in the percentage of families with two or more workers between married-couple families and those headed by females with no husband present ranged from 13%-20%
  • For families not in poverty, the difference in the percentage of families with two or more workers between married-couple families and those headed by females with no husband present ranged from 24%-28%.

It should not be surprising that families headed by two adults typically have more workers than those headed by a single adult.  Because families not in poverty typically have more workers than those in poverty, it is not surprising that a higher percentage of families headed by a female with no husband present live in poverty.

Overall, for people in poverty, the percentage of families with people who do not work, and for those who report one or more workers differs little between married-couple families and those headed by females with no husband present.  The same is true for families not in poverty.  But, there are large differences in the percentage of workers in families who are in poverty compared with those not in poverty. For example,

  • between 8% and 17% of families not in poverty report no workers.
  • between 33% and 45% of families in poverty report no workers.

The other significant work-related difference between family types in and out of poverty in upstate metropolitan areas Is the percentage of families with two or more workers.  Married couple families are more likely to have two or more workers than families headed by females with no husband present.

  • Between 5% and 8% of families in poverty that were headed by females had two or more workers, while between 18% and 26% of workers from married-couple families in poverty had two or more workers.
  • For families not in poverty, 35% to 38% of families headed by females with no husband present had two or more workers, while between 61% and 65% of married-couple families had two or more workers.

Conclusions

It is true that some of the characteristics of people in poverty in upstate metropolitan areas differ from the population that is not in poverty.

  • People in poverty make up much larger portions of city populations than they do of areas outside cities.
  • A higher percentage of people who describe themselves as “black or Afro-American” and “Latino or Hispanic” live in poverty than non-Hispanic/Latino white people.
  • People in poverty in upstate metropolitan areas are more likely to live in families headed by a female with no husband present or in a non-family household than those not in poverty.
  • People in poverty in upstate metropolitan areas were more likely to report having a disability than those who were not in poverty.
  • Lower percentages of people in poverty are members of the workforce, among those in poverty in the workforce, unemployment rates for those in poverty are higher than for people not in poverty.

But, despite the differences, in other ways, people in poverty in upstate metropolitan areas are not unlike those who are more fortunate.

  • About equal numbers of poor people live in central cities and outside central cities within upstate metropolitan areas.
  • More people who describe themselves as “white, not Hispanic or Latino” are in poverty in upstate New York than people who are members of minority groups.
  • Most families living in poverty have at least one family member who is working.

A report by the Brookings Institution, “Who is Poor in the United States?  A Hamilton Project Annual Report, October 2017” [12] shows that while fewer people in poverty work than those who are not in poverty, most of those who don’t work are caregivers, students, disabled, or early retirees leaving only 4% who are not in the labor force for one of these reasons.

According to the Brookings report, more than twice as many people in poverty work less than full-time year-round than work full-time.  This is in sharp contrast to people who are not in poverty, two-thirds of whom work full-time.  People in poverty work part-time for a variety of reasons, but the largest number – 33% — worked part-time involuntarily in 2016.  Caregivers (23%) and students (21%) were the next largest groups of part-time workers in poverty in 2016.[13]

The large percentage of part-time workers whose status is involuntary points to the need to find ways to allow these workers to be employed full-time.  Continued strengthening of the job market would clearly benefit these people.  For people who work full-time but are in poverty, policies to increase wages, such as minimum wage increases, would be beneficial.

The high percentage of people who work less than full-time year around is the result of several factors.  A study by the Center for Budget Priorities points out that these include:

  • Low wage jobs often have irregular work schedules.
  • These jobs often lack paid sick leave or other paid leave.
  • Job turnover is high among low paid workers.
  • Many low paid workers are unable to find affordable child care arrangements.
  • Some low paid workers lack stable housing arrangements. [14]

Because people in poverty participate less in the labor market, many of the policy interventions that had been proposed and implemented focus on ways to increase participation.  Approaches range from attempts to help people get jobs by providing additional training and assisting in locating child care for single parents to coercive approaches, such as conditioning the availability of SNAP (food stamp) and Medicaid benefits on beneficiaries participating in worker training or gaining employment.

To be sure, personal responsibility can be a factor in poverty.   For example, the high level of poverty among female-headed families with no husband present is a result of the unwillingness of some fathers to take responsibility for their children.  A lack of long term thinking by unmarried sexually active people who do not use birth control is another factor.  To counter this problem requires the implementation of policies that hold absent fathers responsible for a share of the cost of raising children, policies that make birth control more accessible, and those that remind people of the financial difficulties faced by many single parents.

But, coercive approaches based on the notion that poor people are insufficiently motivated to seek work confront the fact that the number of people who would be subject to work requirements in programs like SNAP and Medicaid would be relatively small, but a much larger number of poor people would be subject to administrative paperwork requirements to determine their eligibility, because of their status as disabled, caregivers, or students.

Many people in poverty work less than full-time involuntarily.  If their work is seasonal or they have been subject to layoffs and recalls to employment, they would be likely to be subject to potential denials of benefits at those times when they were out of work – precisely the times that assistance would be most needed.  The Center for Budget Priorities report points out that

“SNAP participants often experience periods of joblessness and are more likely to participate in SNAP when they are out of work. Individuals who participated in SNAP at any point over a 3.5-year period from 2009 through 2013 worked most months over this period but were more likely to participate when they were out of work.

  • They participated in SNAP in over two-fifths of the months that they were working (44 percent).
  • They participated in SNAP in 62 percent of the months in which they were not working, a time when their income was lower and their need for help affording food was higher.”[15]

Instituting additional work requirements for participation in programs like SNAP and Medicaid would likely reduce participation levels and would increase administrative costs associated with compliance requirements.  Many of those who could lose benefits would lose assistance when they most need it.

The fundamental question that these approaches raise is whether the government should condition access to essentials for human life, such as government-provided food or health care coverage for unemployed poor people on participation in training programs or regaining employment.  If such an approach is an acceptable incentive, why not limit public schools, police, and fire services to those who work as well?

Because of false stereotypes about people in poverty that emphasize their differences from white suburban majorities in upstate New York, the attitudes of much of the public to programs like SNAP and Medicaid and the poor people who receive assistance from them are negative.  Politicians have fostered these attitudes by promoting ideas based on racist stereotypes like the “welfare queen” who supposedly abused the system, and people who don’t work who do better than those who “work his and her ass off.”  Approaches that establish work requirements for programs that provide food or pay for health care for poor people represent are not well thought out approaches to the difficulties encountered by the poor in our society.  Instead, they will further harm some of those who need assistance.

[1] “He’s a Rhodes Scholar – The GOP Keeps Calling Him a Big City Rapper,” New York Times, October 1, 2018.   https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/01/nyregion/antonio-delgado-rapper.html

[2] In fact, the real welfare queen was a white woman in Chicago, (Linda Taylor), who was prosecuted for cheating the government out of $8,000.  Josh Levin, “The Welfare Queen,” Slate.com:  http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/history/2013/12/linda_taylor_welfare_queen_ronald_reagan_made_her_a_notorious_american_villain.html

[3] Ibid.

[4] Levin, op. cit.

[5] https://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2017/11/29/trump_some_welfare_recipients_make_more_money_than_person_working_their_ass_off.html

[6] http://time.com/5155778/donald-trump-food-stamps-cuts/

[7] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/01/15/opinion/leonhardt-trump-racist.html

[8] Note that the official measure of poverty does not reflect the market value of food stamps or tax benefits like the earned income tax credit.

[9] Residents of counties outside the New York City metropolitan area.

[10] Defined by the Census Bureau as “a group of two people or more (one of whom is the householder) related by birth, marriage, or adoption and residing together”

[11] “people who live alone or who share their residence with unrelated individuals.”

[12] “Who is Poor in the United States?  A Hamilton Project Annual Report, October 2017”, Jay Shambaugh, Lauren Bauer and Audrey Breitwieser, Brookings Institution, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/es_10112017_who_poor_2017_annual_report_hamilton_project.pdf

[13] Ibid, p. 5.

[14] Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, “Most Working-Age SNAP Participants Work, But Often in Unstable Jobs,” Brynne Keith-Jennings and Raheem Chaudhry, March 15, 2018, https://www.cbpp.org/research/food-assistance/most-working-age-snap-participants-work-but-often-in-unstable-jobs

[15] Ibid.

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