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

Jule Pattison-Gordon | 9/23/2016, 6 a.m.

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