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Commentary: Census data shows why critical services need protection

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 2, 2011 - Census Bureau data released this fall highlight the increase in poverty and the plight of Missouri's middle class following the economic recession. Unemployment and poverty have risen, while median household income has fallen. Fortunately, as Missouri families struggle to make ends meet and provide for their children, public services are preventing even more Missourians from falling into poverty. But budget cuts in Washington, mandated by the budget deal and failure of the "super" committee threaten those services.

The Census Bureau recently reported that the number of Americans living in poverty had risen for the fourth year in a row, to 46.2 million from 43.6 million. That means more than one in seven people, including more than one in five children, lived in poverty in 2010. The picture in Missouri was just as grim, with data showing the poverty rate rose to 15.3 percent from 14.6. Families with children under 18, and particularly young families with children under the age of 5, have been hard hit, with family poverty rates of 17.5 percent and 21.6 percent respectively.

As troubling as these numbers are, they understate how many Americans struggle to make ends meet. The Census Bureau considers a family of four to be living in poverty if its income is below $22,314. However, many more families struggle to get by, including the 27.8 percent of Missouri households that make less than $25,000 and the nearly one in 11 Missourians who are unemployed.

These are not just numbers that will improve after the recession is over. Poverty and unemployment have longer term consequences. Unemployed workers lose critical job skills. The health and development of children living in poverty suffer, and they do worse in school, threatening their ability to become productive workers as adults.

It doesn't have to be this way. We know how to help people through hard times and prepare for a stronger economic future. For example, the availability of public health insurance meant that, while the number of people with private health insurance fell this year, the share of Americans who are uninsured did not grow. And programs like unemployment insurance, expanded food stamps and the child and earned income tax credits kept many more people from falling below the poverty line.

These programs have long-term impacts that can help break the cycle of poverty. Boosting the incomes of the poorest families has a significant impact on children's educational performance and increases those children's earnings as adults. In the short term, services like unemployment insurance spur economic activity because families generally need to spend those benefits immediately on basic needs.

However, many of these successful services are at risk. Although rising poverty creates more demand for critical assistance, states and the federal government have cut services. Missouri has reduced state unemployment insurance benefits and cut critical education and social services that serve as a foundation for our economy.

At the federal level, proposals to reduce the deficit through cuts in health care or other essential services will have the opposite effect because they will reduce jobs, cripple economic activity and shrink tax revenues.

More than ever before, Missourians need our elected leaders to make bipartisan, measured policy decisions. The failure of the "supercommittee" does not end the need to address long-term debt. An effective plan would continue funding for successful services like unemployment insurance that help families through this time of crisis and provide an economic boost to our communities.

A successful plan would also ensure that any deficit reduction package includes revenues. Tax cuts and loopholes contribute significantly to the deficit, and addressing them must be part of the solution. The people of this nation cannot withstand significant cuts in services that help our seniors, children and people with disabilities while tax loopholes remain for millionaires and large corporations.

This is no time for policymakers in Washington, D.C., to be sidetracked by political squabbles. Our country and our state cannot thrive when so many people are struggling. We must act now.

Ruth Ehresman is director of Health and Budget Policy for the Missouri Budget Project. 

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