News & Events

Solow Responds to Rise in Iowa Poverty

Lindie Hunter doesn’t need the latest statistics.

“This economy has really made it tough,” Hunter said one afternoon this week in the living room of the two-bedroom home near Anamosa she rents from her mother and sister. “It’s a lot tougher.”

“Something is seriously misfiring in the American economy” is how Coe College political science professor Bruce Nesmith puts it. “It casts into doubt the whole premise of the American economic system, that equality of opportunity and free markets will raise standards of living over the long haul.”

Hunter’s view comes from experience, but both are supported by Census data released late last month. The income and poverty data, broken down to the county and school-district level, show poverty increased while median household incomes dropped between 2000 and 2010.

“Iowa is a less volatile place than the country as a whole so we don’t see the big run-ups,” said John Solow, associate professor of economics at the University of Iowa. “Our economy is fairly stable, but at the same time we’re not a very high-wage state.”

The trend is less dramatic for the 2006-2010 period for which uniform measures were used, and some Eastern Iowa counties rallied slightly, a few even countering the decade’s trend. But median incomes across the nation and Iowa dropped, and the gains that happened were not enough to overcome a period of overall middle-class decline and rising poverty.

“We expect poverty to rise and median income to fall during times of recession, and then get better during times of recovery, and indeed that is the historical experience,” Nesmith wrote in an email. “What shocked me was that from the end of the recession in 2001 to the beginning of the recession in 2007, median income went down and poverty went up.”

Members of a median-income Linn County household would know. Between 2000 and 2010, the county’s inflation-adjusted median income dropped more than $6,000. Although the county’s poverty rate remains lower than the state’s, which is lower than the nation’s the number of people in poverty jumped 75 percent, to just over 20,000.

(Census data after 2005 is derived from a more-detailed survey method that’s remained uniform, and the Census advises against direct comparisons of 2010 with pre-2005 statistics although the trends they show hold up. And the income measure across the decade “is the closest you can get,” according to a Census demographer.)

The trend is felt among local agencies that try to support families like Hunter’s. The recession increases demand for services just as tighter incomes hit donors.

“We’ve had people tell us ‘I used to be a donor, and now I need a food box,’” said Mindy Kaiser, spokeswoman for the Salvation Army in Cedar Rapids.

Kaiser said the Salvation Army has relaxed restrictions at its food pantry, allowing families to visit monthly instead of quarterly.

“Those numbers are steadily increasing,” said Kaiser.

Reflecting tightened eligibility and a recent modest economic recovery, enrollment in state welfare programs has dropped. Statewide caseloads in the Family Investment Program (FIP), the basic welfare program form families with childrem, went from just under 19,000 in October 2005 to just over 16,000 last month.

“I think because we’re seeing some recovery in the economy the FIP caseload reflects that,” said Ann Wiebers, head of the Iowa Department of Human Services’ Financial Health and Work Supports Bureau.

Food assistance—formerly and still informally "food stamps"—has doubled over the past five years, from 30,580 Iowa households in November 2006 to 60,866 last month. That reflects federal efforts to increase food aid availability to low-income working people—last January, the Iowa Legislature increased the eligibility guideline from 130 to 160 percent of poverty.

“That allows more people with a little bit more income to become eligible,” said Wiebers.

Hunter has depended on state and non-profit support since returning to her native Jones County from Colorado in 2009. With that assistance, she’s worked herself thisclose to the middle class, eight months from a Kirkwood Community College nursing degree.

“There’s so much out there for nursing,” said Hunter, 37, whose sister is a nurse. “It’s such a high demand and there’s such a shortage, it would be a good area for me to get into and have a career.”

An earlier telemarketing job fell victim to the economy, and Hunter has landed a position with a tax-preparation service that will run through April. When outside work hasn’t been available, it’s been food aid and $495 a month from FIP.

Hunter, a single mother of three boys and a girl age 4 through 12, landed grants and loans to cover her tuition while Promise Jobs, a welfare-to-work program, helps with child-care and transportation expenses. All four of Hunter’s children have attended the Head Start pre-school program for low-income children, where her youngest still goes.

“If it hadn’t have been for Head Start I don’t know what I would have done,” said Hunter, who volunteered to be the parents’ representative for Anamosa Head Start. “If I had to pay for day care for four kids I wouldn’t have been able to do what I’m doing.”

Hunter looks forward to moving from recipient to contributor and has an idea for a local benefit for families in poverty.

“That’s my dream, that they have that kind of activity for me and my kids to give to people,” she said.

She’s also met with U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin and Congressman Bruce Braley to discuss ways to move from welfare to work. Her biggest idea: a low- or no-interest loan to help with the first few months of employment.

“It takes three weeks to get that first check,” she said. “You have to borrow money and you get your first paycheck, and you’re in the hole again.”

For now, though, “I’m just hoping to get through the rest of the nursing program and start my career,” Hunter said. “I’m looking forward to being on my own, without asking anybody for help.”

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