Report on poverty in Cambridge stuns, spurs talk of resetting council priorities
A report on poverty in Cambridge stunned city councillors Monday, showing a city where single mothers scrape by on median incomes of $22,383, black and hispanic poverty rates soared above those for whites and Asians and the poor were clustered in a handful of census tracts.
“This is an important document as we look forward this term to what kind of work we want to do,” said E. Denise Simmons to her fellow city councillors Monday at one of its first working meetings since the election. “We’re not going to be able to turn the tide in one term, but we can certainly get started.”
“This is a stunning report,” Simmons said, calling for a roundtable meeting with the School Committee to talk over the issues found in “Poverty in Cambridge,” which was compiled by city planning information manager Clifford Cook and presented by Brian Murphy, assistant city manager and head of the Community Development Department.
The report used three sets of Census data, with the most recent available being from 2011.
Simmons was troubled by the fact that more than half of the families living in poverty could be found in six census tracts out of the cities’ 32, clustering them in North Cambridge – about a quarter of poor families, or 23.8 percent, are in two tracts there – and in Area IV and East Cambridge:
Other officials found further causes for alarm and avenues for exploration, including vice mayor Dennis Benzan. Seeing a dramatic increase in poverty among blacks and hispanics since 2000, while poverty decreased among whites and Asians, Benzan thought it necessary to expand the report to include incarceration rates among men of color. He saw data and anecdotal evidence from his own work in the community – including an outsize incidence of single mothers in some neighborhoods – “that suggests that there’s a large number of young men and women in our city that are getting caught up in the criminal justice system.”
Here’s the overall figures on poverty by race in Cambridge:
And here’s the chart showing the increase in poverty among blacks and hispanics:
Murphy agreed that it was worthwhile to look for incarceration data to help flesh out the next version of the report, as he had noted some striking trends from the report: the divergence in women’s income, “a significant difference based only on gender”; the increase in the race gap; and the divergence between people who finished college and those who didn’t.
Perhaps the biggest addition to the next report is that it will look not just at people in poverty, which make up 11.1 percent of the population, but at residents who are near poverty, Murphy said. New York City has taken a similar step.
“We’re going to try to look at ‘near poor’ low-wage workers and the like by taking into consideration such things as noncash benefits such as food stamps and tax credits,” Murphy said, suggesting it would be important “when you think about the city of Cambridge and how expensive it is.”
Fall through the cracks
The idea got strong support from Marc McGovern, a social worker who moved to the City Council after several terms on the School Committee. There are “so many families that are one or two paychecks away [from poverty] that often don’t show up in the statistics but have all the obstacles and stresses that folks in poverty have,” he said.
They fall through the cracks, he said, by having too much money to qualify for services but not enough to provide those services for themselves. Free school lunches were one example of the problem, in this case caused in part by the fact the guidelines for qualifying are federal and “it’s so much more expensive to live here.”
The same meeting saw the council endorsing unanimously an increase in the state minimum wage to $11 per hour, without corresponding cuts to unemployment insurance, and looking extensively at promoting science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics education and training to get residents into local high-paying industries such as those based in Kendall Square.
Planning for a downturn
In addition to being identified as a roundtable topic and priority when the council sets its goals, City Manager Richard C. Rossi said the “Poverty in Cambridge” report was also a topic of conversation with the Affordable Housing Trust and would be shared with other city boards and officials “so they can better understand the actual community and what’s going on.”
Councillor Nadeem Mazen had a further suggestion: that the city starts planning for a financial downturn in the next decade that looked inevitable given the continued lack of regulation in the financial industry and lack of recovery seen for most people who suffered in the recession of 2008-09.
“What can the city do in preparation for the next downturn, whether that’s saving for a rainy day or putting training programs in place so we know how to ramp up that workflow?” Mazen said. “There may be ultimately a great number of things that the city can do in preparation.”