It’s become a bit easier in recent months to drive around Portland without having an encounter with a destitute person seeking your help. The city’s ban on panhandling in medians is apparently a success. Supporters of the ordinance say their main intention was to address the extreme dangers involved in standing on a median (I tried it once, and survived). The real basis for the ban was captured more truthfully by a cruise-ship visitor this summer who told me she loved everything about Portland — except all the homeless people hanging about.
If anything, though, we should be shocked that poor people aren’t more visible. A new report from US Census shows that the “explosion” in panhandling that’s been the subject of much local griping just happened to coincide with an explosion in poverty throughout Maine and the nation. About 15 percent of Mainers now live in poverty, the report shows, up from 12.3 percent during the depths of the recession in 2008. One reason you’re not likely to see a huge percentage of those 190,000 poor folks standing alone on the streets is because they are children.
More than a quarter of kids under age 5 in Maine live in poverty.
Another reason the most poor among us aren’t more visible is that most are working. A study by the Urban Institute in 2002 found that 45 percent of homeless people had worked in the previous 30 days. That’s only 13 percent lower than the percentage of the overall population that’s currently employed. But these days it takes an unreasonable amount work for most people to really improve their lot. The new Census data showed that since the end of the recession in 2009, the top 5 percent of earners among us were alone in achieving meaningful income gains. Earnings for middle-class families have been stagnant for decades, with the median American income now settled to levels not seen since the 1980s. And much of the nation is stuck in cycles of long-term unemployment or short-term employment with extremely low wages.
The most important reason that poverty isn’t more visible today, though, is that safety-net programs enable many poor people to address their most basic needs. Take the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called food stamps: Four million people were lifted above the poverty line by the program last year. As poverty increased, the number of people in the program increased from 13.8 percent in 2008 to 17.8 percent in 2012. Another anti-poverty measure, the earned income tax credit, lifted 5.5 million out of poverty.
But it’s easy to look around and get the impression that most people are pretty well off and don’t need help. Poverty is abundant in 2013, but the $200 million yacht that sat in Portland Harbor last week is just as much a sign of the times. Corporate profits are soaring, stocks are rallying, and the economy continues to grow steadily. Economic growth won’t do much to help poverty, though, because in 2012, the top 10 percent of earners took more than half of the country’s total income — a greater share than since the government started keeping track in 1913.