By Paul Edward Parker
Providence Journal Staff Writer
More than 3 percent of Rhode Island’s population — some 33,000 men, women and children — fell into poverty in 2008 as the recession tightened its grip on the Ocean State, according to recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.
From 2007 to 2008, Rhode Island displaced Massachusetts as the New England state with the highest poverty rate. The state also leapfrogged Maine and Vermont in the process, going from fourth-highest to highest in the six-state region.
Even so, Rhode Island didn’t fare too badly compared with the national average because New England had some of the lowest poverty rates in the country. New Hampshire had the lowest rate nationally, at 7.0 percent. Connecticut was third, with 8.1 percent, and Vermont sixth, with 9.0 percent. Rhode Island’s 12.7 percent rate tied it with Kansas for 26th lowest in the nation, and the state had less poverty than the country as a whole, which measured 13.2 percent.
In all, the Census estimates 132,000 Rhode Islanders in 2008 lived below the poverty level, which was $22,025 for a family of four and $10,991 for individuals.
“So many people have lost their jobs,” said Linda Katz, policy director for the Poverty Institute at the Rhode Island College School of Social Work. “The increase in poverty is related to the fact that people have lost their jobs and their source of income.”
Katz noted that Rhode Island’s unemployment rate jumped more than 2 percentage points from July 2007 to July 2008. Revised numbers from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics show the rate increased during that period from 5.2 percent to 7.9 percent.
“Our concern, of course, is going forward,” she said. “We’re very concerned about what the data in 2009 is going to show because we’ve fallen much deeper into economic hardship.”
By August, the state’s unemployment had climbed to 12.8 percent, with 73,300 looking for work.
“You might expect things even tougher when the release comes out next year,” said Paul E. Harrington, an economist with the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University.
The Census Bureau data, taken from the Current Population Survey, which is done jointly with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, showed Rhode Island with a larger increase in poverty than any other New England state. After Rhode Island’s 3.2-percent increase in the number of people living in poverty, New Hampshire ranked second at 1.2 percent. Two states, Connecticut and Vermont, showed drops in poverty of less than 1 percent.
Harrington said Rhode Islanders are feeling the recession harder.
“The recession came a year earlier to you,” Harrington said. “And you had pretty rapid job loss early on.”
Harrington said that the poor generally fall into three categories: those who meet the government definition of unemployed, meaning they are looking for work; those no longer in the work force, which can include people without jobs who have given up looking for work; and the so-called “working poor,” who have jobs that don’t pay enough for basic necessities.
“There’s an increase in the number of working-poor population,” he said. “We’re seeing this pretty sharp reduction in hours of work.”
Especially vulnerable are people who ended their education after high school, either with a diploma or by dropping out. They tend to have lower wage jobs that had them just above the poverty level before the recession hit. Any loss of income — either through layoff, a cut in pay or a cut in hours — could easily push them into poverty, Harrington said.
Also, traditional two-parent families have been hit hard. “Men have been crushed in this downturn,” he said. “You’ve got to wonder how many heads of households, primary earners, lost their jobs.”
Indeed, while the poverty rate climbed from 2007 to 2008 in Rhode Island, the rate for families headed by single mothers held steady between 38 and 39 percent.
The Poverty Institute’s Katz criticized the federal measure of poverty, saying it is based on 1960s economics that no longer hold true, especially in the Northeast.
“I don’t think that anybody thinks the poverty level measures the ability to meet basic needs,” she said. “It doesn’t take into account costs regionally.”
Katz suggested a different method of assessing poverty.
“What we really want to be measuring is whether people can keep a roof over their head and food on their table,” she said. “What it costs to live in Rhode Island is about two-and-three-quarters to three times the poverty level.”
While the federal poverty level for a family of four is was $22,025 in 2008, Katz said it cost $52,188 to support a family of four in Rhode Island, without any frills. “It’s pretty much a bare-bones budget.”