Last week the U.S. Census Bureau released a report that revealed how Americans fared in 2011. Theresults from the American Community Surveyhighlight social and economic realities facing the United States. Since its release, a spate of news stories have analyzed the implications. Headlines like: “US poverty rate unchanged; record numbers persist” or “California Poverty: Three Metro Areas In Central Valley Rank Among The Poorest In The Nation” slice and dice the figures for accessible consumption. Some stories have profiled the startling contrast between the richest cities, like San Jose, where the median income is $77,000 annually, with the poorest, like Detroit, where the median income is $25,000. Others have discussed the different household income patterns across urban and rural areas or by race.
In Wisconsin, one newspaper reported, “Milwaukee remained one of America’s 10 most impoverished big cities, with a poverty rate of 29.4% in 2011. The figure was unchanged from a year earlier, signaling that the economic spiral that enveloped the city’s poorest communities in recent years may have hit bottom.” A self-identified libertarian radio personality used the city’s slice of the national data to critique local elected officials who, in his view, “seem more concerned with boondoggle projects and political maneuvering than with creating a business-friendly environment that would provide the kind of opportunities people who are willing to work need to get ahead.” As Marcus Mescher noted before the release of these figures, political parties have a keen interest in how the public perceives the report’s implications in the run-up to the presidential election.
Policy wonks and poverty researchers are familiar with the data release cycle. With the return of school books and falling leaves comes the demand for analysis and sound bites. And with that, the contrasts and contradictions that make for good nightly news broadcasts and newspaper headlines.
Rankings and ratings are an intrinsic part of the human experience. We categorize, define, interpret and remake into something understandable, accessible. Both appointed and elected decision makers across the country are dependent on the American Community Survey data to determine how to allocate resources at the local, state, and national level. We need the report’s data to help make sense of the economic hardship facing our country’s poorest residents. We also need compassion.
Yesterday was the feast day of St. Vincent de Paul, a 16th century priest who founded the Congregation of the Mission (and eventually Daughters of Charity) that prioritized charitable works on behalf of the poor. In some communities, his moniker is synonymous with trucks from the St. Vincent de Paul Society that pick up donations of furniture and clothes or their thrift stores where these items benefit those in need.
May our pragmatic consumption of the new poverty data be balanced with a mindful, compassionate response to the lived realities of our fellow Americans. And, for those who follow in St. Vincent de Paul’s footsteps in caring for the broken, the poor, the forgotten, may the celebration of his life renew your energy and heart for the work.