Poverty in Massachusetts isn’t new. But the number of families in distress is spiraling out of control. Much of the increase in the Commonwealth’s poor is blamed on high housing costs. Nobody can deny that the housing costs do dictate the rise in homelessness and increased hunger. In fact, hungry families serviced by food pantries have doubled in number in the past three years, as reported by the Boston Globe on Tuesday.

Project Bread, the anti-hunger organization that provides food for shelters and food pantries throughout the Commonwealth blames this rise on housing costs and poverty. But what they have not addressed is the stagnant federal poverty level statistics and the unfair refusal of the federal government to consider cost of living in the poverty levels.

A person living in Manhatten, San Francisco, or Boston uses the same federal poverty statistics as does a person from Iowa, Oklahoma, or Mississippi. But the cost of living between the former and latter cities is many times higher. Much of this is indeed housing cost related. But the cost of everything in San Francisco is higher than it is in Des Moines. Yet the federal government rates both communities the same, and considers the poverty level to be the same across the board.

This doesn’t just affect food stamps and AFDC, it affects subsidized housing and Medicaid health coverage.  All of these programs are based on the poverty level. For example, a family of 4 in Ottumwa Iowa earns $30K per year. Their housing costs are $500/month. They qualify for $50 of food stamps per month and are overqualified for Medicaid, subsidized housing and AFDC. But because they have a low housing cost, they can afford to feed their family and even pay for medications and occasional doctor visits. They can afford to insure a car, pay for gas, and even pay for heating costs. Although they are still low income, they can live a frugal but comfortable life.
Then compare that to a family of 4 in Manhattan. They make the same salary, but their housing costs are $2200/month. They qualify for $50 of food stamps, but no other programs. However, they cannot pay to feed their families because there is no money left over.  None. They cannot pay for transportation, heat, clothing, or anything else. They aren’t paying a high rent for a family of 4 in Manhattan, but they are penalized by the federal poverty rate. In NYC, these family are poor. They should qualify for help under the federal safety net, but they’re 200% + over the federal poverty rate. They qualify for nothing extra.
If the rate took the cost of living into account, it would be a much fairer distribution of social service aid. Reducing hunger and poverty isn’t an easy road to hoe. But working to change the poverty levels throughout the US is definately the first step.

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