Editorial: Numbers add up to grim poverty picture

Published Dec. 23, 2016

Good news on the local economy — workers returning to the job force, unemployment low month after month, tourism breaking records — tends to mask the sad truth that more than 200,000 people in Hillsborough County live lives of poverty. With its central message of selfless giving, Christmas is the right time to remember this — and to take to heart the stake we all have in wiping out poverty in our community.

You need not look far to see the numbers corroborated — the homeless man spending the night on a swinging bench along the shiny, new northern stretch of the Tampa Riverwalk; belongings piled in front of an apartment after a family's eviction; services like the Joshua House for children in crisis bursting at the seams.

In fact, the saddest of truths among the many measurements of local poverty is this: More than one in four Hillsborough children under 5 live below the poverty level.

Can there be a more powerful reminder of their plight than the child whose birth in the poorest of surroundings is celebrated at Christmas?

Reason for hope lies in a U.S. Census Bureau study released in September on income and poverty nationwide. Among the findings: Real median household income increased 5.2 percent between 2014 and 2015 for the first time since before the Great Recession; the official poverty rate decreased during the period by 1.2 percentage points; and the number of full-time, year-round workers increased by 2.4 million in 2015.

Still, numbers from Census Bureau's American Community Survey paint a grim picture of poverty in Hillsborough County.

An estimated 17 percent of the county's population of 1.28 million lives below the poverty level, according to the 2015 survey — higher than the Florida average. Far more of the poor are nearer the beginning of their lives than the end — 26 percent of children under 5, 11 percent for those 65 and over.

Exactly twice the proportion of blacks as whites live below the poverty level — 28 percent compared to 14 percent. And the numbers hammer home the importance of a college education: Just 5 percent of those 25 and older who attained a four-year degree live below the poverty level, compared to more than 31 percent of those who didn't finish high school.

Unemployment, obviously, increases the incidence of poverty among the population group measured — civilians 16 and over. But joblessness hits women harder than men in Hillsborough. Forty-one percent of women who are unemployed live in poverty compared to 36 percent of men.

Research on poverty points to ways of reducing it. A 2015 study by two Harvard University economists found five factors associated strongly with moving up and out of poverty: less segregation by income and race, lower levels of income inequality, better schools, lower rates of violent crime and a larger share of two-parent households.

Offering low-income families housing vouchers and assistance in moving to lower-poverty neighborhoods delivers major benefits for the families and for taxpayers, especially when the efforts are aimed at families with young children the study concluded.

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That's a move under way now in Tampa, where the sprawling housing project North Boulevard Homes is being emptied, in part, through the use of vouchers.

Local leaders have noted that a living wage is the single greatest factor in escaping poverty, so steady growth in the state's labor pool — by 35,000 in October alone — is one bit of encouraging economic news.

But communitywide efforts in housing and other arenas can help, too — as can the personal acts of charity that Christmas inspires.

With 217,684 living below the poverty line in Hillsborough County, it will take many acts — large and small, January to December — to put a dent in the problem. Maybe the place to start is with the number 21,503 — those in this group who are kids under 5 and least able to help themselves.