More on Poverty

After I published a post on poverty yesterday a friend raised an important question: just what is poverty level anyway?

The Department of Health and Human Services provides the answer: For one person, poverty level is $11,170. For households of three people, it’s $19,090 and for a family of four it’s 23,050. The link at the beginning of this paragraph includes poverty levels for families of up to eight people.

Those are pretty low income levels, especially for families. And keep in mind that nearly a third of the people in Provo are making at or below those levels.

Understandably, when people hear that there is a lot of poverty in their community they want to explain it. In addition to explanations relating to students, I’ve also heard people mention factors such as low income housing in Provo and even “a lot of babies.”

Some of these explanations are clearly red herrings. Babies, for example, aren’t counted as no-wage earners. But many explanations are useful for understanding how to fix problems and improve cities — something I haven’t arrived at yet in this series on wealth.

But for now, I want to resist the urge to explain the causes of these numbers. Instead, I’m just focusing on the fact that Provo has 115,321 people — young, old, student, professional, unemployed, whatever — and that on average those people make less money than their counterparts in other cities. That fact has an impact on the local economy. Period.

Shops in downtown Provo. Imagine what would happen to these businesses if incomes in Provo went up by $10,000.

The problem I have with explanations is that they seem to implicitly take communities off the hook. When someone says, “but Provo really is more like Boulder than the numbers suggest,” or “yeah, but it’s [fill in the demographic] that unfairly skews Provo’s numbers,” it sounds like an excuse to either do nothing, or to make changes — Add more shops! Make downtown prettier! — that don’t address the underlying disparity between regions. In the end, if the numbers were skewed or misleading, downtown wouldn’t be as challenged as it is.

Ultimately, there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of reasons that incomes and poverty levels here are higher. They’re good excuses.

But that doesn’t change the fact that if you’re a person making $35,000 a year you’re probably going to eat out less often than someone making $50,000. You’ll buy less art and attend live theater less often. You can’t remodel your house as extensively or as soon. Places like the Covey Center, The Echo Theatre, Communal, Station 22, and every other consumer business in downtown suffers as a result.

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5 Comments

Filed under economics

5 responses to “More on Poverty

  1. Thank your post! I currently serve as an AmeriCorps VISTA with United Way of Utah County, working on anti-poverty initiatives. I’ve noticed that many in our community are insulated from these type of issues, and don’t recognize how they can affect us.

    We invite anyone committed to combating poverty and helping our community to learn more about the programs we work with, especially the Circles Program: http://www.unitedwayucv.org/org/10447149977.html

    There will also be a free “Bridges Out of Poverty” training December 1st that helps dissect why poverty exists, and what we can do to combat it. Please e-mail me if you would like more information!

  2. Maria

    I am not saying it does, but if in fact Provo does have comparable populations but a disproportionate number of low income housing compared to Boulder or Chattanoga–that’s not an excuse, it’s a fact. The question would then need to be asked “Why is that?” How are those cities (1) able to care for their needy/low income citizens while (2) maintaining a thriving business environment which in turn provides tax revenue to support infrastructure and programs that aid the needy and at the same time (3) attracts those with higher incomes to want to settle down and call that city home?

  3. Tosh

    i find it interesting that other communities can have better stores than downtown provo. look at university mall– they have all kinds of nice upper-end stores that downtown provo doesnt. it seems to me we DO have NICE UPPER END STORES, they just aren’t choosing to go to downtown provo. why? is it because its TOO MUCH to get their store looking nice? is it more cost effective to go to a place that takes care of their property–like a mall or a strip mall than downtown? park city and moab manage to keep their downtowns looking NICE, so it creates a synergistic approach. why had downtown provo failed in this? i realize each property is individually owned and operated, but so is park city. so is moab, so is logan…..i dont think its just income levels. i think its PERCEPTION. and because of the perception that provo has no parking (not true), downtown is ugly (not ENTIRELY true), or its OLD (true, but its AWESOME), could be detrimental.

  4. I heart Provo

    Maybe our low income housing affiliates like Neighborworks Provo, Habitat for Humanity, and Provo Housing Authority are doing too good of a job in placing low income tenants in Provo.

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