Express Yourself: Recognizing poverty in America and Yolo County

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A Winters Express opinion column

By Wally Pearce, Winters Elder Day Council
Special to the Express

Most people want the same things in life: to learn, earn and belong. But, not everyone experiences the equitable systemic supports needed to achieve this.

Dictionaries define the depth of poverty as having inferior quality or insufficient amount. The World Health Organization describes poverty when any individual or household income is below what’s needed for daily sustenance. The United Nations conveys extreme poverty as, “a condition characterized by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information. It depends not only on income but also on access to services.”

Notably, to understand poverty, it must be experienced. Among the impoverished, poverty is realized often in the expressions of shame, powerlessness, hopelessness and even humiliation. Walk in the shoes of the poor and you’ll understand these and other terms.

Saturday, Jan. 1, starts the observance of National Poverty Awareness Month — a month-long initiative by the U.S. Bishops, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, Meals on Wheels America, Feeding America, and countless other organizations all intended to raise awareness and call attention to the continued growth of poverty in America. For over 130 years, various organizations struggle to end poverty by creating equity and opportunity and why poverty continues to impact so many of us.

Today, over 46 million Americans live in poverty, a total population greater than the combined states of Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Kansas and Nebraska. By contrast, California’s total population is approximately 40 million.

Unfortunately, the paradigm of various people allows them to think of poverty as happening in developing third-world countries. Yet, acute penury is right here in America and often goes unrecognized. Statistics show that one in three individuals with disabilities live in poverty — even worse, the disability-poverty rate is twice the rate for individuals without disabilities. In Yolo County today, over 19 percent of the population for whom poverty status is determined by the Urban Institute, a nonprofit research organization, has determined that approximately (39K out of 209K people) live below the poverty line, higher than the national average of 12.3 percent.

Hunger, malnutrition, limited access to education and other basic services, social discrimination and exclusion, disabilities, restricted access to participation in the democratic process, and limited, to no access to healthcare, and housing. These are just some poverty signs.

Nelson Mandela once said, “Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It’s man-made and can be overcome and eradicated by the action of human beings.”

Unlike some poverty qualifiers, the California Poverty Measure (CPM), a joint research effort by Public Policy Institute of California and the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, accounts for some of the official cost of living and a range of family needs. According to the CPM, 16.4 percent of Californians (about 6.3 million) lacked enough resources — $35,000 dollars per year for a family of four, to meet basic needs in 2020.

In 2020, COVID-19 increased poverty due to constrained employment opportunity. However, state/federal responses like the CARES Act in 2020 and the American Rescue Plan Act in 2021, mitigated poverty surges by providing needed economic support. Without these social safety net programs, it’s estimated that 6.6 percent more Californians would’ve been in poverty.

Most safety net programs are designed to prioritize children, and in 2020 they kept 12.1 percent of children out of poverty. The federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) lowered poverty rates most, by 1.6 points overall, and CalFresh lowered the overall poverty rate by 1.3 points. The federal Child Tax Credit lowered the rate by 1.1 points; CalWORKs and General Assistance together lowered the rate by 0.8 points. Among children under age six, the combined California EITC and Young Child Tax Credit lowered the rate by 0.6 points. These differing effects reflect program scale and scope as well as participation rates among eligible families.

The Yolo County Homeless and Poverty Action Coalition, a local nonprofit organization that provides leadership and coordination on the issues of homelessness and poverty in Yolo County, can be contacted at 530-661-2629. Another agency that works to fight poverty is Yolo County’s Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA). Contact them by calling 833-744-4472. HHSA can also help with CalFresh and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) applications.

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