Photograph by Kate Ripley

As in other communities across the United States and the world, Bloomington's poverty rate has exploded in the first 12 years of the new millenium, boding ill for the future. U.S. Census estimates put the 2010 poverty rate nationwide at a record high of 46.2 million.

By any measure, from the observational to the documented, corporate governance  and the global economy have spawned an epidemic of poverty, from Bloomington to Bakersfield to Baltimore and beyond.

The streets and alleys of downtown Bloomington are homes and hangouts to growing numbers of the economically displaced. The latest U.S. Census Bureau data suggest the number of Hoosiers living below the poverty line grew by 65,000-plus between 2009 and 2010. A November 2011 analysis of that census data by the Brookings Institution said the first decade of the 21st century drove the number of impoverished Americans to a record high 46.2 million.

With the poverty line set at $22,314 for a family of four, the Brookings report found a trend toward "concentrated poverty" – neighborhoods with more than 40 percent of residents living below that line – which it said nearly doubled in Midwestern metro areas between 2000 and 2009.

"The Great Lakes metro areas of Toledo, Youngstown, Detroit and Dayton ranked among those experiencing the largest increases in concentrated poverty rates," the report said. Concentrated-poverty rates in those cities were between 16 and 23 percent.

Indianapolis had a rate of 7.7 percent, which, while significantly less than the lake communities, reflected a 6 percent jump in a decade, from 1.7 percent in 2000.

And, the report found, the poverty class is increasingly more white and better educated, although under-educated African Americans still comprise the largest share of the population in concentrated-poverty areas.

"Compared to 2000, residents of extreme-poverty neighborhoods in 2005–09 were more likely to be white, native-born, high school or college graduates, homeowners, and not receiving public assistance," the report said.

An October 2011 Census report titled "Poverty: 2009 and 2010," found the national poverty rate increased from 14.3 percent in 2009 to 15.3 percent in 2010.

"The number of people in poverty increased from 42.9 million to 46.2 million during the same time period," it said.

Thirty-two states, including Indiana, saw their poverty rates increase between those two years.

"For 20 states, this was the second consecutive annual increase," the report said.


Bloomington's poverty-stricken not only populate the streets, they utilize the city's social service agencies, which provide food, shelter, medical care, day care and other necessities, to the extent they can. The agencies receive both private and public support for their missions, including City of Bloomington grants from two sources – the Jack Hopkins Social Service Funding program and Community Development Block Grants (CDBG).

"Compared to 2000, residents of extreme-poverty neighborhoods in 2005–09 were more likely to be white, native-born, high school or college graduates, homeowners, and not receiving public assistance." - Brookings Institution report, 2011

These grant programs provide insight into the community's social service needs and priorities. In 2012 they prioritized the most basic of human needs: housing and food, providing nearly $376,000 to nonprofits engaged in those issues.

Hopkins funds are generated locally and have more than doubled since the program began in 1993, when one $90,000 grant was allocated for a nonprofit clinic that provided health care to the uninsured.

On June 20, 2012, the City Council granted 26 agencies a record total $250,000 in Hopkins funds. Almost two-thirds – $163,680 – went to organizations that provide shelter and food.

In 2010, the council awarded $200,000 in Hopkins funding, with 14 percent going to food and shelter, according to city records. In 2009, the figures were $180,000 and 34 percent.

CDBG funds come from U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and are tied to a formula for how they can be spent – no more than 15 percent for social service programs, no more than 20 percent for administrative costs and no more than 65 percent for physical improvements.

HUD requires that 70 percent of CDBG funds be dedicated for the benefit of low- and moderate-income citizens. The remainder can be used to prevent or eliminate blighted areas or to address community development needs arising from serious and immediate threats to the health or welfare of the community.

"Please note that currently all our funds are leveraged to address low- and moderate-income populations," council documents say.

In 2012,  Bloomington CDGB funds totaled nearly $775,000, with a maximum social service allotment of $116,212, which didn't come close to meeting the needs identified by the agencies.

"This year seven programs sought approximately $175,000, which amounts to about 150 percent more than the $116,212 in available funds," council documents say.

But rather than partially fund most programs, as has happened in the past, this year city officials decided to more fully fund a smaller number of agencies.

The bulk of the social service funding – $69,249 – went to three agencies that provide food to the hungry. Another $242,991 from the physical improvements allowance went to housing programs to build homes, expand a homeless shelter, and rehabilitate and repair homes inhabited by low-income families.


In May 2012, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) issued a report called "Measuring child poverty" that analyzed child poverty in 35 of the world's richest countries. The stakes, its authors said, are high.

"Previous reports in this series have shown that failure to protect children from poverty is one of the most costly mistakes a society can make," they say.

"A society that fails to maintain that commitment, even in difficult economic times, is a society that is failing its most vulnerable citizens and storing up intractable social and economic problems for the years immediately ahead." - UNICEF report on child poverty, 2012

The heaviest cost of all is borne by the children themselves, their report said. But societies also pay a significant price in reduced skills and productivity, lower levels of health and educational achievement, increased likelihood of unemployment and welfare dependence, higher costs of judicial and social protection systems, and the loss of social cohesion.

The UNICEF report analyzed two measures of child poverty – deprivation and relative poverty.

The deprivation measure identified a percentage of children in 29 countries whose families couldn't afford two or more of 14 items, including meals, shoes, books, leisure equipment such as bicycles, etc.

"The highest rates of deprivation are to be found in some of the newest and poorest member countries of the European Union," the report said. "Over 30 percent are seen to be deprived in Hungary and Latvia, over 50 percent in Bulgaria and over 70 percent in Romania."

The United States wasn't among the countries analyzed for deprivation, but it was for relative poverty, defined as disposable income, adjusted for family size and composition, that is less than 50 percent of the national median income. The median U.S. income was $51,914 in 2010, according to the U.S. Census.

In that category, the United States found itself lodged at the bottom with the East Europeans, with 23 percent of U.S. children in relative poverty. Only Romania had a higher rate – 25.5 percent. Latvia had 18.8 and Bulgaria had 17.7.

The costs of failed commitment to child protection, the report said, are profound.

"A society that fails to maintain that commitment, even in difficult economic times, is a society that is failing its most vulnerable citizens and storing up intractable social and economic problems for the years immediately ahead," it said.

For example, previous UNICEF reports have found associations between child poverty and a long list of individual and social risks – impaired cognitive development, increased behavioral difficulties, poor health, underachievement in school, lowered skills and aspirations, higher risks of welfare dependency, greater likelihood of teenage pregnancy and increased probability of drug and alcohol abuse.

"That there are many exceptions – many children who grow up in economically poor families who do not fall into any of these categories – does not alter the fact that poverty in childhood is closely and consistently associated with measurable disadvantage both for individuals and for the societies in which they live," the report said.

Combating child poverty is also a moral obligation, UNICEF said.

"A commitment to protecting children from poverty is therefore more than a slogan or a routine inclusion in a political manifesto," the report said. "It is the hallmark of a civilized society."

Steven Higgs can be reached at .