Major’s Musing: Don’t Get Lulled to Sleep on Poverty

Sep 30, 2022

When a report showed recently that the poverty rate in the U.S. had fallen to a record low of 7.8%, with children poverty plunging to 5.3%, it was news so many of us in this field have waited a lifetime to hear.  

But, any sense of accomplishment was tempered by the fact the declining poverty rate has been driven by pandemic-related support from the federal government, specifically through stimulus checks and the expanded child tax credits. While this is promising, the truth is pandemic aid can only take us so far, especially as it comes to an end.

Think about what it costs to live in Philadelphia, for example. Economic reports suggest inflation may have peaked. Maybe so, but tell that to our citizens dealing with soaring rents, rising interest rates, and affordable housing contracts on the verge of expiration. The federal poverty rate does not account for those who are asset limited, income constrained, and employed (ALICE) – and 51% of households in Philadelphia County fell into that category as of 2020.

Not only that – increases in food prices show no ebbing. The average price of milk for Philadelphians climbed from $5.19 a gallon in January to $5.89 now. Before the pandemic, milk was running at $4.00.

Wages may be up, but families are still teetering on the edge. Parents are often faced with hard questions, such as, : should they provide a meal for their children, or should they pay the utility bill so their children can have a place to sleep? It should hardly surprise us that Almost 6,000 Philadelphians are experiencing homelessness. Shelters around the city are often filled to capacity – including The Salvation Army’s family residences, which are currently at maximum capacity. We have seen our after-hours intake rate double this past summer from last year. Simply put, families can’t afford a place to live.

It’s up to government leaders and organizations like The Salvation Army to not get lulled to sleep by the new numbers. Instead, we must use this time as an opportunity to develop real, long-term strategies to respond to ease the burden poverty foists on far too many people every day.

Neither must we lose sight that poverty statistics – even improving ones – are more than numbers on a spreadsheet. They represent real people with real needs.

That’s where charities such as The Salvation Army come in. Since the start of the pandemic, we have been able to serve 300,000 individuals in need through our food programs, shelters and housing assistance, youth programs, and more, as described in our 2022 State of Hope in Philadelphia Report. To combat the issue of homelessness specifically, in 2021 alone, provided over 115,000 lodgings to those in need.

I know times are still tough for a lot of charities who are short of volunteers or other resources; however, I urge those charities to not give up. There are still thousands of families out there who are counting on our support, so it is our duty to stand at the ready. Continue to recruit support from the general public or even from government organizations so you can continue to help those who are in need.

We at The Salvation Army are thankful to the City of Philadelphia, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the federal government for the many ways they continue to support charities like The Salvation Army. I am excited, thanks to funding from the city’s Continuum of Care and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, we are on track to double the capacity of our transitional housing for survivors of human trafficking. Also, we are able to provide necessary renovations to our Red Shield Family Residence, thanks to funding from the Commonwealth.

When it comes to poverty, there is always work to be done – no matter what the data or trends say. Stay awake.

Major Tawny Cowen-Zanders

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