Here in Arkansas, it sometimes appears that we have escaped the worst of the recession. Arkansas's unemployment rate of 7.5 percent remains well below the national average.
Why then do one in four Arkansas children have insufficient food — among the highest rates in the nation? The number of Arkansans seeking help from food banks assisted by our project Change for Change is growing rapidly to the point where many of these facilities frequently run out of food.
Despite low unemployment, poverty remains distressingly high in our state. According to data released by the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly one in five Arkansas residents was living in poverty in 2009, which translates into an astounding 18.9 percent of the population, up from 15.3 percent in 2008. This is even higher than the dismal national picture painted by the Census report, which showed that one in seven people or 14.3 percent were living in poverty — an increase of 3.7 million over 2008. For a family of four, that meant living with an income of less than $21,954.
What explains the disconnect between relatively low unemployment in Arkansas and high poverty? In truth, joblessness is only one piece of the story. Many people have seen their work hours reduced or have not been able to work year round. In Arkansas, one in seven workers either can't find work at all, works fewer hours than they want, or has simply given up looking. Add in the high number of people who work at near minimum wage and suddenly those lines at the food bank make sense.
This growing poverty has dire consequences for our country's future economic health. A new report by the Coalition on Human Needs — The Recession Generation: Preventing Long-term Damage from Child Poverty and Young Adult Joblessness — tracks the long-term effects of child poverty. The report looked at the two counties with the highest rates of child poverty in 2008 in each of 10 states. Arkansas's Phillips County had typical results: over half the children live in poverty, barely two out of three adults have graduated from high school, one out of eight babies is born underweight, and one out of five adults is in fair or poor health. St Francis County fared almost as badly on every count.
What makes the new poverty data particularly disturbing is that it is far from inevitable.
The economic recovery legislation enacted in 2009 included many provisions that reduced the severity of poverty and the extent of joblessness. According to the Census Bureau, nationwide 3.3 million people were lifted out of poverty by unemployment insurance benefits. If the value of food stamp benefits were included in the poverty measure, another 3.6 million people would not have been counted as poor. And 4.2 million more people would have been classified above poverty levels if income from the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) had been calculated. All of these provisions, and others, were expanded under the Recovery Act.
Here in Arkansas, Governor Beebe is focusing on education and economic development to try to increase our per capita income. The Governor is working hard to prepare more of Arkansas's students to attend and graduate from college. The state has also invested heavily in workforce training and career education programs. These efforts have begun to pay off. Under the governor, Arkansas has risen from 48th state in the nation for per capita income to 44th.
The dramatic poverty increases make it clear that investments in jobs and protections against hardship must remain a national priority. Unfortunately, many of those investments will soon expire, including expansions of the EITC and Child Tax Credit that put more money into the pockets of low-income working families. If those expansions expire nationally 158,000 fewer children will benefit from the Child Tax Credit alone, and 77,000 fewer from the EITC.
What's more, some in Congress are using concerns about the federal deficit to justify cutting the very programs that are helping most. Just this summer, Congress reduced the food stamp benefit for a family of four by almost $60 a month beginning in April 2014. Now Congress is considering starting the reduction a year earlier.
Our leaders in Washington did the right thing by investing in successful anti-poverty protections in early 2009. The need for those investments is far from over.
Steven Copley is a United Methodist pastor and the advocate for the poor of the Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church. Ernest Dumas is on vacation.