Battling Kentucky's High Poverty Rate
By Tony McVeigh
Frankfort, KY – Now, turning to Kentucky, at 17%, the Commonwealth has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation. A 25-member legislative task force charged with developing strategies for combating the problem held its initial meeting this week in Frankfort. Kentucky Public Radio's Tony McVeigh was there.
The U.S. Census Bureau now ranks Kentucky fifth among states, and the District of Columbia, when measuring poverty. That's up from sixth last year. House Speaker Greg Stumbo says the commonwealth's heading in the wrong direction, and that's why House and Senate leaders have formed a task force to find answers to the state's poverty problem.
"The Bible tells us that the poor will always be with us, but that we have a duty to reach out to them," said Stumbo. "And I think, if you look at what we've done in Kentucky, we haven't been reaching out enough."
Stumbo co-chairs the legislature's Poverty Task Force. The panel, with 19 representatives and six senators, is co-chaired by Sen. Brandon Smith of Hazard.
"I've always been of the train of thought - coming from Appalachia - that it's extremely difficult for us to stand up here and thump our chest about what a wonderful job we're doing and how well we're doing, when there's a child that's living in inadequate housing, they're not getting adequate medical care, they're hungry, their Mom and Dad are hungry," said Smith. "It's difficult for us to say we've been a successful at anything."
For a better understanding of the state's poverty situation, the task force turned to the Center for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky. It's one of four federally funded research centers in the United States and its director is Dr. James Ziliak. Ziliak says the poverty rate measures the fraction of the population with incomes below the poverty line. For two people, with no children, the poverty threshold is $14,417 dollars.
"Four people with two children, the poverty threshold is just under $22,000," said Ziliak.
But Manchester Sen. Robert Stivers wanted to know if the thresholds are adjusted to reflect local differences in the cost of living.
"Is that in any way weighted for the area which you come from, or is that just a raw dollar figure?" asked Stivers.
"There is no geographic adjustment for the poverty threshold," replied Ziliak. "So, the four person family with two kids have $21,834. That's the amount of money you need for a family of four to be out of poverty in New York City, and that's the amount of money you need to be out of poverty in Frankfort, Kentucky."
Ziliak says the methodology could change if legislation under consideration in Washington passes, but current data indicates Kentucky's poverty rate is 16.5%. That's roughly 700,000 people. Most live in Eastern Kentucky. Twenty-three percent are children, 30% are African-Americans, 27% are Hispanic and 30% have less than a high school education. Ziliak says if you're looking for solutions to poverty, expanded educational opportunities are key - especially pre-kindergarten programs.
"They do show greater payoff in terms of high school graduation, amongst participants in the program," said Ziliak. "Higher rates of employment as adults. Higher earnings as adults."
Dr. Ziliak says other ways to address poverty include tax modernization, child care assistance, health care reform and establishment of a state Earned Income Tax Credit, similar to the federal EITC, which he says lifts four million families out of poverty each year.
"Such an EITC should be refundable to the family and target all the low-income workers," said Ziliak.
Ziliak's comments were well received by the task force, which has three more meetings planned before the 2010 General Assembly convenes in January. And co-chairman Smith promises this won't be one of those panels that issues a report that just sits on a shelf somewhere in Frankfort gathering dust.
"We are going to sit down and put some stuff on the agenda to be able to make some sort of recommendations in the form of legislation to help cure some of the troubled spots in our state and on our history."
The group's next meeting is October 26th.