Karl Douglass: Persistence of poverty

February 15, 2014 

According to a recent Kids Count survey, almost 15,000 children in Muscogee County live in poverty. That's about 30 percent of all children who live in the county.

That's an alarming statistic.

Here's another one.

According to the Census Bureau's 2010 American Community Survey, Muscogee County has areas of concentrated poverty of 70% or more.

Many in our community will ask how this can be. We live in a community that is good at attracting and creating jobs. And our unemployment rate is less than 8 per cent.

Well, it is critical to understand that not everyone who lives in poverty is unemployed. If a single parent of three wakes up every day and goes to work earning minimum wage of $7.25, after working 40 hours a week for 52 weeks each year he or she will earn gross wages of $15,080.

That's less than the federal poverty level.

That example will bother some because it is a single-parent scenario. Single parenthood in and of itself has a high correlation with poverty.

So let's assume a two-parent household where both parents earn minimum wage of $7.25. Using the same assumptions, a two-parent household will earn gross wages of $30,160. That household income is $7,110 above the 2012 Federal Poverty Level. However, the family may still qualify for government assistance, placing them among those considered to be in practical poverty.

The simple fact is that all the statistics indicate poverty is an epic problem in Columbus. In 2009, the Building Prosperity in Columbus Steering Committee issued an insightful report that sought to quantify the root causes of poverty in our community. The report points to marital status, home ownership, unemployment and the community's rate of job creation as four factors among 11 that relate to Columbus' poverty rate. Underemployment and wage compression are not specifically cited as factors in the report, but they should be.

The fact that any person can go to work for 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year and still live in poverty is a problem not only in Columbus but anywhere that situation exists. The pervasiveness of the problem in the United States has compelled the President to use his executive powers to require anyone doing business with the federal government to pay a minimum wage of $10.10. Some local and state governments have also enacted legislation to set their respective minimum wages well above the federal requirement.

We cannot truly be the community that we aspire to be until we wrestle with the persistent poverty in which close to 30 percent of our children find themselves. In order for children to be lifted out of poverty, their parents must have the opportunity to earn sufficient wages. Solving the wage problem requires an active partnership between the government and business. Columbus has proven itself adept at such public-private partnerships. Let's commit to the goal of having fewer Columbus children live in poverty over the next decade than have faced that reality over the last decade.

Karl Douglass, Columbus native and resident, is a frequent commenter on local, state and federal politics. Follow him on Twitter@KarlDouglass or facebook.com/karldouglass.

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