Nebraska. Welcome to the good life. Prosperity abounds among the rolling plains of this well-off state.
But amid that prosperity lurks a certain pervasive problem, negatively affecting about 12 percent of the state’s total population. It’s not an issue unique to Nebraska. Nor is it something that can be easily eradicated.
Poverty — defined as the state of one who lacks a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions — affects hundreds of thousands of Nebraskans. It exists across all regions of the state and certainly right here in Norfolk.
“Poverty is a reality for the community of Norfolk,” said Doug Witte, associate superintendent of student services for Norfolk Public Schools.
About 16.3 percent of Norfolk’s population is estimated to be in poverty, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. That amounts to more than 3,700 people.
“I'm not surprised (by the poverty rate), but I'm concerned that it stays as high as it is,” Witte said. “That's something that communities need to rally around and discuss how we are going to address that when it comes to the needs of families who reside within our community.”
Poverty rates vary greatly across Northeast and North Central Nebraska, with Boyd County having the lowest rate at 6.9 percent and Thurston County having the highest rate at 29 percent. Madison County sits in the top third, with a rate of 13.7 percent.
The census bureau measures poverty based on federal poverty income guidelines. For a family of four, that means earning $23,550 or less puts them below the poverty line. For a single individual, the poverty threshold is $11,490.
David Peters, an assistant professor of sociology at Iowa State University in Ames, said several factors can cause poverty rates to differ between counties that seem similar.
“Communities can be similar in their demographics or in their economics,” said Peters, who has conducted research on the poverty rates among different communities. “In the case of most Nebraska counties, they are similar in their demographics.”
Many counties in Nebraska have small populations with low levels of ethnic diversity, Peters said. That means that much of the difference in poverty rates among counties comes from economic differences, such as the population density and the flow of goods and services throughout the community.
Peters said it’s also important to realize that poverty rates can easily be influenced in a county with lower populations.
“With sparsely populated regions with a small base population, it doesn't take much to change the poverty rate,” he said. “Even if a farmer sells a substantial head of cattle or a medium-sized business closes, it can affect the poverty rate and the median income levels. It's one of the challenges when looking at county-level data in Nebraska.”
The effects of living in poverty are extensive. Purchasing basic necessities like groceries, clothing, housing and health care can become a desperate struggle for low-income families and individuals.
Jennifer Clary, a research associate at the Chicago-based Heartland Alliance Social IMPACT Research Center — which is a leading research organization on poverty in the Midwest — said poverty keeps people from reaching their full potential.
“Americans fundamentally value a strong society where every member is thriving,” Clary said. “Poverty keeps people from thriving.”
Clary said financial instability can also lead families and individuals to make rash decisions with negative outcomes.
“Having limited resources, as poor families do, results in limited opportunities and in families making short-term trade-offs with long-term personal and community consequences,” she said.
For example, a mother might forgo medical care she needs for high blood pressure because she has to buy food for her children. Or a family might skip a bill or rent payment to pay for other basic necessities, such as child care, Clary said.
“These trade-offs jeopardize the everyday lives of everyone, not just individual families, because the well-being of the nation depends on the well-being of all of us,” she said.
Nebraska, as a whole, has historically had lower levels of poverty compared to other areas of the United States. Experts attribute this to several factors, including the workforce makeup in the region.
“The upper Midwest is always leading the country in the number of females in the labor force and married couples who are both in the workforce,” said David Drozd, research coordinator at the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Center for Public Affairs Research. “Dual incomes help pull people above the poverty threshold.”
Over the years, public and political attitudes about poverty and ways to combat the issue have taken on different forms in the shape of nonprofit organizations and federal aid programs.
In the 1960s and ’70s, the dominant public thinking was that poverty was caused by a lack of economic opportunity, mainly a shortage of good-paying jobs, Peters said.
“People didn't view poverty as being caused by individual failings but because of a lack of jobs and economic opportunity,” he said.
Several decades later, more of the public started to believe that poverty is influenced by individual factors as well, such as a lack of education, lack of work ethic or other behavioral or personality quirks, Peters said.
With that change in thinking came a shift in aid programs to more of a skills-based approach with career classes, life skills courses and financial literacy classes being offered to low-income populations.
“Public sentiment changed rather radically during this period,” Peters said. “We started blaming the poor for being poor. This is still the dominant thinking about poverty today.”
Many recent programs aimed at combating poverty have focused on providing aid and extra help to poor children, something that Peters says is the most effective way to deal with the issue.
“It's important to make sure these poor children are being offered the services they need,” he said. “That's really the biggest payoff for public investment when it comes to combating poverty. That it's early enough where you can hopefully change their path and help them break out of the cycle that they've been born into.”
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Coming tomorrow: Madison County has a surprisingly high poverty rate among women.