The Changing Face of Poverty

Poverty in Boston is changing, and as a result, the ways in which ABCD responds to poverty are evolving. ABCD’s mission remains the same – providing low-income households with the tools needed for economic success. But a deeper understanding of what poverty means today can make our work more effective.

Poverty is often defined by a single number: the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), as shown in this chart prepared by the Massachusetts Poverty Law Advocates. In the City of Boston today, there are about 115,600 people living at or below 100% of the poverty line, a rate of 17.9%. This shorthand way to talk about poverty doesn’t tell the whole story . . . far from it. For example, a minimum wage worker in Massachusetts earns $14.25 an hour; at 40 hours per week, he or she makes $29, 640 annually. A single person with this income lives at about 200% of the FPL, but is certainly under great economic strain, as are many households at 300%, 400% and even 500% of FPL. 

Some other ways that today’s poverty is much more complex than a single number and very different from what we have seen in the past include:

“Housing poverty” and “childcare poverty.” There is a $30,000-$35,000 wage gap between what families are earning and what represents a living wage in Boston, according to recent research. Much of this gap reflects the cost of housing and childcare. The Boston Globe reports a median monthly rent of $2,600 on a newly listed one-bedroom apartment and an average annual cost of infant child care at $20,913.  Very high costs of living and accelerating inflation mean that once again families living far above the poverty line can also be in deep economic distress and in need of ABCD’s help.

Generational poverty. Millennials and Gen Z are the first generations to have a lower standard of living than their parents. A significant number of people from both generations have fallen into poverty. In Boston today, almost as many people living in poverty have a Bachelor’s degree or higher as are people with less than a high school diploma. These are often individuals with limited community supports and little of the life experience that can provide resilience, who also have additional economic burdens including student loans. They may not think of ABCD when they need help.

Poverty declines?   The number of Boston households below 100% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) is declining — by about 5% in the past year. The reduction is not because more families are rising out of poverty — it is primarily because low-income families are leaving Boston in search of affordable housing. ABCD services may need to follow these households exiting Boston to their new homes so that they don’t lose vital supports.

Generational shifts. Poverty in Boston is becoming more clustered at the ends of the age spectrum… Poor elders are staying here and the numbers of young children under five are growing, relative to working-age adults. This trend is often related to eligibility for subsidized housing among elders and families with young children, as neighborhoods gentrify. In both cases, the support needs of vulnerable people “left behind” can be great. 

Communities under pressure.  Poverty-level households in Boston are becoming more geographically concentrated. There are more census tracts with very high rates of poverty and fewer areas with a wide range of incomes than ever before. The result is often that low-income communities have fewer internal resources that can help struggling families. ABCD often has to step in to do more. 

Poverty is more than a number. It reflects not only a need for income, but needs for community, resources, opportunity and social capital that everyone needs to thrive. As ABCD begins its three-year Strategic Planning process this fall, a core question will be this: As the face of poverty changes, how do we need to change?