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Poverty Numbers Decline Nationally, but That Isn’t Visible in Greater Phoenix, Jewish Organizations Say

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  • Written By: Shannon Levitt
Poverty Numbers Decline Nationally, but That Isn’t Visible in Greater Phoenix, Jewish Organizations Say

On Sept. 13, the U.S. Census Bureau held a press briefing to spotlight some good news amid an otherwise uneasy economic climate. One of our nation’s stubbornly bad indicators just got a little better.

Poverty went down pretty much across the board — age, race and other indicators, according to the numbers. One of the most positive findings was that the Census Bureau’s supplemental poverty measure for children had reached its lowest level since the bureau started recording the figures.

“SPM (supplemental poverty measure) child poverty rates fell 46% in 2021, from 9.7% in 2020 to 5.2% in 2021, a 4.5 percentage-point decline. This is the lowest SPM child poverty rate on record,” the Census Bureau said in its report on the findings. “In 2021, SPM child poverty rates fell for non-Hispanic white (2.7%), Black (8.1%) and Hispanic (8.4%) children, also their lowest rates on record.”

The official poverty rate for the nation in 2021 was 11.6%, with 37.9 million people in poverty. While neither the rate nor the number in poverty was significantly different from 2020, it is nearly half the rate when the Census Bureau started tracking U.S. poverty in 1959.

John Creamer, an economist in the Census Bureau’s Poverty Statistics Branch, said in a Sept. 13 blog posting that government assistance lifted 45.2 million people out of poverty in 2021 — or kept them from falling into it.

That’s a surprise to some of Greater Phoenix’s Jewish organizations that assist impoverished people every day. They haven’t yet seen a tangible improvement. According to the Census Bureau, the rate of people in poverty in Arizona statewide is similar to the national average of 12.8%. On the other hand, Phoenix has a poverty rate of 16.2%.

Yecheskel Friedman, program director of Ezras Cholim of Phoenix and Arizona Kosher Pantry, told Jewish News that as far as he can tell, things have gotten much worse since the pandemic. Ezras Cholim provides emergency support services for sick Jews and Arizona Kosher Pantry is a part of a national food-pantry network called Feeding America.

“The Census Bureau should come here and take a look,” he said. “There isn’t enough food on the shelves and everything has gotten really expensive. Definitely we see more people in here now since the pandemic, not less.”

He said more “regular people,” those who never sought food assistance before the pandemic, are still coming in to supplement their groceries.

“That’s a big difference from before the pandemic,” he said.

He’d like to see more support from the Jewish community, which “would be a blessing.”

Dr. Lorrie Henderson, CEO of Jewish Family & Children’s Service, said he too was somewhat surprised by the Census’ report.

“This population has a lot of needs with limited resources,” Henderson said. “I don’t expect it to change a whole lot. The overall need might go down a little through time, but things take a long time to ameliorate.”

“We saw a big need when the pandemic hit — a big increase in everything. We haven’t seen it go down a whole lot,” he said.

He said that roughly 90% of the people JFCS serves are at or below the poverty line. The organization works with about 40,000 unique individuals per year, and that number has held steady over the last few years.

JFCS provides a long list of services to the community, including emergency food assistance, behavioral and mental health care and tangible services to kids who have aged out of foster care.

“This population has a lot of needs with limited resources,” Henderson said. “I don’t expect it to change a whole lot. The overall need might go down a little through time, but things take a long time to ameliorate.”

He said he has been heartened by the additional resources coming from the Jewish community “by way of more donations and more tangible food donations and non-perishables.

“Without the additional funding and support it would have been worse. I’m really sure of that.”

JFCS works with other aid organizations across Greater Phoenix to connect people with any service it doesn’t provide. The goal for all such agencies is to keep people from falling into homelessness, which would exacerbate all the problems associated with poverty.

Austin Davis, Arizona Jews for Justice’s community outreach organizer and founder of AZ Hugs for the Houseless, said helping people navigate the patchwork system of programs is key to keeping people out of homelessness.

“It’s important to tackle housing insecurity and homelessness from different angles,” he said.

From what he’s witnessed, more people are living on the street now than before the pandemic.

“In Arizona, we’re in the midst of a housing crisis and every week we see people getting evicted and we talk to people who just can’t pay rent. It’s a big issue.”

The City of Phoenix aims to create or preserve 50,000 homes by 2030 as part of its Housing Phoenix Plan.

Nationally, at least, the Census Bureau said the American Rescue Plan Act, passed in March 2021, has been instrumental in keeping people out of poverty.

The law provided additional income in the form of a third stimulus payment sent to households starting March 2021. It also changed several refundable tax credits, including expanding the earned income tax credit to filers without children and making the child tax credit and the child and dependent care credit fully refundable.

“If people had the privilege of having a mailbox, then people were getting help,” Davis said. “A lot of homeless people didn’t receive anything.”

Creating affordable housing has to be a priority in Arizona, Davis said.

It’s difficult to know what next year’s numbers will say for Phoenix or the nation.

Liana E. Fox, assistant division chief of economic characteristics for the Census Bureau, told reporters on Sept. 13, “We can’t really speculate on what happens in 2022; we haven’t even begun to collect data.”

A lot can change the numbers, including the fact that much of the pandemic aid expired at the end of 2021, as did the child tax credit.

Davis said one quintessential thing he provides will not show up in any number.

“Hope is one of the biggest services we can provide. Navigating the system is difficult but helping people to get those resources really helps people to keep going.”

Hope is necessary for him to keep doing this work, he said.

“I will never give up on the people.”

Shannon Levitt is a staff writer for the Jewish News, where this article was originally published.