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Coalition Urges State Action To Curb Rising Poverty In Missouri

Missourians to End Poverty
Overall, Missouri's poverty rate grew 3 percentage points between 2008 and 2012. This map breaks down the rate of change by county during that same four-year period.

Correction: An earlier version of this story used a version of the report that had not been updated. It contained incorrect information about the poverty rate in St. Louis County. This has been corrected.

Missouri’s poverty rate rose nearly 3 percentage points between 2008 and 2012, according to a report released today by a coalition of social service groups.

“Poverty is a blight on the development of our state,” says the report by Missourians to End Poverty, a coalition whose prominent members include the Missouri Association for Social Welfare, headed by Jeanette Mott Oxford, and Catholic Charities.

Mott Oxford noted that the report comes on the heels of the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty" speech. She says while poverty has dropped sharply since 1964, Missouri has seen “an overall reversal of those poverty trends in the last five years, and it’s time for a recommitment to (social programs) that help us get out of poverty.”

According to the report, more than 940,000 Missourians are poor due to five interconnected problems that it says are difficult to address: Inadequate food; little or no access to health insurance; low levels of education; bad housing; and a combination of unemployment and jobs that pay relatively low wages.

These factors, it says, have helped to push the state’s poverty rate to 16.2 percent in 2012, up from 13.4 percent in 2008.

Not all doom and gloom

There are two bright spots in Missouri that could bode well for the economy. In November, the unemployment rate fell to 6.1 percent. Also, there was a 2.4 percent rise in the high school graduation rate in 2012. Numerous studies have found a link between income and education levels. So, more people who graduate high school should translate into more people earning better wages.

But even these positive developments come with drawbacks.

“Missouri’s employment outlook is problematic since many new positions are lower wage service jobs – not long-term sustainable wage employment,” the report says.

It adds that graduation rates continue to be lower in high poverty school districts.

Rather than investing in programs to uplift the poor, the report says Missouri has “placed increasing pressure on public schools to remediate the challenges created by poverty.” The coalition’s report says this approach amounts to a “silo mentality” that ignores the impact of poverty on educational success.

Differences within Missouri

The 16.2 percent poverty rate doesn’t hold steady across Missouri. According to the report, the poverty rate in St. Louis is in excess of 29 percent -- higher than all but one county in the Missouri bootheel, a region regarded as the state’s most destitute. St. Louis County's rate is a little over 12 percent.

The coalition’s definition of poverty is based on the number of residents with incomes below the federal poverty level, which is $19,530 for a family of three. About half  of the 940,000 poor Missourians have incomes that are 50 percent less than the federal poverty level, the report says.

Credit Missourians to End Poverty
Poverty is defined as an individual making $11,490 or less a year. For a family of four, earning $23,550 or less is considered living in poverty.

When asked about the counter argument that many people are poor because they don’t want to work, Mott Oxford says that  “anyone whose goal in life is to live on a welfare check has some serious mental health issues.” But too often, she adds, “we blame people who are poor for the poverty and ignore the fact that the economy has not produced a living wage job for everyone who wants one.” 

Mott Oxford also says that the poverty rate is higher than the official numbers and that in reality “more than 16.2 percent of Missourians are struggling and not having access to basic human needs during some part of the year.”

She says 40 percent of Missouri households live on less than $31,000 a year.

As a former state representative, Mott Oxford acknowledges that getting the legislator to act on some of the reports recommendations is a challenge. She concedes that many people feel programs like Medicaid expansion are a “political nonstarter.”  House Speaker Tim Jones, a Republican from Wildwood has said as much, insisting that the Medicaid will not be broadened in the current session.

Still, Mott Oxford says, “If we as people speak up and ask for something different, we can change what’s possible.” 

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.