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Poverty rates swell in region’s large cities

By Katheleen Conti
Globe Staff / October 6, 2011

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In April of last year, an average of 240 people waited in line each week to receive donated groceries from the Lazarus House Ministries food pantry in Lawrence.

Two weeks ago, the count was up to 739. Last week, it was 843, said Bridget Shaheen, executive director of the organization.

The influx, Shaheen said, represents a class of new poor - those whose previously comfortable livelihoods have been altered by the lingering effects of the recent economic recession and its slow recovery.

“We’re noticing more, greater tension as people are waiting for food. They just don’t see an end in sight,’’ Shaheen said. “People will bring their resume to our food coordinator, saying, ‘I’ve never had to do this before. I’m so embarrassed. I’m so ashamed.’ . . . It’s tough to live in a land where some people have so much and you have nothing and have nowhere else to turn.’’

Longer lines at food pantries, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and other public assistance community organizations are a reflection of the increasing number of Americans falling below the official poverty line. Recently released results from the US Census Bureau showed that the nation’s poverty rate was 15.1 percent last year, the highest since 1993. The estimated numbers for the four largest Massachusetts cities north of Boston - Lawrence, Lowell, Lynn, and Somerville - are above the national rate.

The poverty threshold for a family of four in 2010 was an annual income of $22,314.

According to the bureau’s 2010 American Community Survey, which relies on estimates and lists varying margins of error, 27.3 percent of the population in Lawrence is living in poverty. In Lowell it is 15.8 percent; in Lynn, 20.4 percent; and in Somerville, 18.1 percent.

For all except Lowell, the numbers are higher than in 2000, when Lawrence was estimated at 24.3 percent, Lynn was 16.5 percent, and Somerville was 12.5 percent. The estimate for Lowell in 2000 was 16.8 percent.

Antipoverty agency organizers in these cities said these statistics are not only grim, but also inaccurate. The real numbers are much worse.

“The biggest problem is that low-income people are undercounted,’’ said Bill Lipchitz, deputy executive director of Community Teamwork Inc. in Lowell. “Particularly in Lowell, we have a number of ethnic groups, like Cambodians, and a number of African groups that are not comfortable filling out the [census] forms.’’

All four cities are popular gateway communities for various immigrant groups, which often struggle to find well-paying jobs and have to contend with the language barrier, organizers said.

“There are serious populations of Brazilians, Creole- and Spanish-speaking folks, and others from Nepal and other Indian cultures, so it’s a significant thing in Somerville when you have the influx of people coming in not speaking the language,’’ said Kimberly Smith-Cofield, executive director at Community Action Agency of Somerville.

There are 52 languages spoken in the high school alone, she said. “That’s significant.’’

Robert Forrant, professor of US history at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, said that the government’s $22,000 annual-income poverty threshold for a family of four “is ridiculously low. So you have to make under that to be considered poor.’’

Still, he said the estimates are “disturbing enough,’’ and blames them on a “perfect storm’’ of too few high-paying jobs, home foreclosures, and the banking crisis.

“Among the number of people who fall below the poverty category, significant numbers of people are working, but are working for what economists call ‘poverty wages,’ ’’ Forrant said. “People are one or two paychecks away from becoming one of these statistics.’’

As of August, the unemployment rates in Lawrence, Lowell, and Lynn were 15.6, 9.6, and 8.6 percent respectively, well above the state’s 7 percent average, according to state labor statistics. Somerville’s was 5.2 percent.

“During hard economic times, we’re around the last in the state to recover, and we’re the first to get the impact,’’ said Jack Mogielnicki, chief executive officer of Lynn Economic Opportunity Inc. “It’s been very depressing over the years to see not only generational poverty, but kind of the face of poverty change.’’

Compounding the problem for antipoverty agencies is a heavy dependence on government funding, which has been cut steadily in recent years, Mogielnicki said.

He worries that with winter coming, agencies won’t be able to provide enough heating assistance for those who need it most.

“For the fuel assistance program, in the past two years we’ve seen a 20 percent increase in applications. Our waiting room is the saddest room in the city from here through the next six months,’’ Mogielnicki said.

“There’s long-term unemployment, and that brings on depression and other difficulties, and you go deeper and deeper in the hole,’’ he said. “What’s disturbing is the inability of the federal government to reach any kind of compromise. Those things are kind of disturbing. I hope for a change of mood in the country.’’

Shaheen, of Lazarus House, said she has seen instances of residents working two $8-an-hour full-time jobs, but who are still getting eviction notices and are unable to make ends meet.

“When our grandparents did that, they were able to fund a college education for their kids and get ahead. Today, you can’t get ahead,’’ she said. “The strength of people to get up every single day and face this and try to make a better life for their kids, it’s an amazing thing. We have a lot to learn from people who are poor - their strength, their courage, their lack of selfishness toward other people.’’

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.

Losing ground
The estimated percentage of people living in
poverty has risen in local cities, except for Lowell.