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UMass policy seminar looks at changing face of poverty

Eduardo A. de Oliveira | 6/10/2009, 6:45 a.m.
Chuck Collins (left), director of the Institute for Policy Studies’ Program on Inequality and the Common Good, speaks to attendees at a recent discussion of the nature of modern American poverty held at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. According to data discussed at the seminar, 6 million people in the Northeast live below the poverty line.

For many immigrant workers living in the U.S., the home of poverty is a shanty town, an improvised settlement where untreated sewage runs across unpaved streets. A less apparent, but equally disturbing, form of poverty was discussed in a seminar last week at the University of Massachusetts-Boston.

Data discussed at the seminar, organized by the Center for Social Policy (CSP) at UMass-Boston’s McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies, showed that in the Northeast United States, 6 million people live below the poverty line, with income of less than $15,000 a year for a family of three people. That’s 11 percent of the entire population of the region, a little bit less than the national rate of 12.5 percent.

What’s more, a “Bridging the Gap” study conducted in 2007 by UMass-Boston economics professor Randy Albelda found that 25 percent of people in Massachusetts that lived in a family with at least one earner had an income below the cost of living.

At last week’s seminar, Chuck Collins introduced another perspective.

“As the heir of the meatpacker Oscar Meyer, I won the lottery at birth, born at third base. But inherited wealth is not a terminal condition,” joked Collins, a senior scholar at the nonprofit Institute for Policy Studies and the author of a book called “Apartheid in America.”

The condition is more serious for many African Americans, especially in Michigan, where economists last week projected that the unemployment rate would jump to 20 percent by 2011, Collins said. Poverty rates among African American children could climb up to 50 percent, he added.

Collins classified the current financial crisis as the turning point.

“We’re not going back to 2006 … or 1996,” he said. “Part of the problem comes from ecological constraints — we can’t go back to an economy based on cheap energy.”

He said the U.S. has been sustained by what he called “a casino economy,” in which 40 percent of profits came from the financial sector.

“Wall Street is the creator of phantom wealth; Main Street is the creator of real wealth and sustainability,” Collins said. “We need to go back to local energy producing, to having control of local food systems. We need to build what we know is real, such as jobs, energy, health.”

Albelda used a quote from a May 2009 article in The Washington Post to frame the problem: In the U.S., “you have to be rich to be poor.”

“For example, bodegas or corner stores in neighborhoods charge you more than if you go to a big suburban grocery store, and often it’s not as good quality,’ Albelda said. “So if you don’t have a car, or access to a car, you end up paying more. And if you have to do your laundry in a laundromat, it costs more. If you’re poor, or low-income, you can’t buy things that would save you time.”

Albelda also criticized the U.S.’s current anti-poverty social programs for being based on the reality of mid-20th century families, which consisted of a married couple helmed by a lone male, often white, breadwinner.