More Missourians are slipping into poverty every year, a coalition of activists said Wednesday.
The rate of poverty in Missouri has risen steadily over the past few years, up from 13.4 percent in 2008 to 16.2 percent today. Nearly one in every four children lives in poverty in the Show-Me State.
"An increase of 3 percent is not huge, but it's 179,000 more people," said Jessica Long, spokesperson for the Missouri Association for Community Action Inc., based in Jefferson City. "It's more than the populations of Jefferson City and Columbia combined."
Members of the Missourians to End Poverty coalition gathered in a Capitol hearing room on Wednesday morning to release their 2014 state-of-the-state report. The report revealed that out of the more than 6 million people living in the state, 947,792 of them live at or below the federal poverty level. More than 400,000 residents live in extreme poverty.
To be considered "in poverty," a family of four can earn no more than $23,550 and a family of two can earn no more than $15,510. To live in "extreme" poverty means families live on 50 percent or less of those amounts.
Nearly half of the state's poorest residents - 48.5 percent - are employed.
The event was an opportunity to shine a spotlight on some of the key issues surrounding poverty and identify some potential solutions to those problems, said Pat Dougherty, senior director of advocacy for Catholic Charities.
"As Missourians, we envision a just society of shared responsibility ... in which all individuals are respected, have opportunities to reach their full potential and to participate in thriving, diverse, sustainable communities," he said.
Cole, Moniteau and Osage counties are part of a small area where fewer than 15 percent of the residents live in poverty. However, even in Cole County poverty rates have risen.
The most intense areas of poverty are in the Bootheel, the St. Louis region and in about 26 rural counties where the Ozark Mountains dominate the landscape. About four counties along the Iowa-Missouri border also have higher-than-average poverty rates.
St. Charles County and Platte County have the lowest poverty rates in the state.
Dougherty noted that solving the problem of poverty is difficult to address because the causes are made up of a vast interconnected web of issues - from large economic forces such as wage inequality to localized problems like inadequate public transportation.
"There's no one, magic solution," he added. "And that makes it much harder."
The report notes Missouri is one of only 10 states with a "food insecurity" rating higher than the national average of 14.5 percent. (The term "food security" is defined as access by all people, at all times, to enough food to carry on active, healthy lifestyles.)
"This translates into roughly 400,000 Missourians experiencing hunger," the report notes, adding that the problem has only grown worse in the last 10 years.
The report also notes that 801,380 people lack health insurance in Missouri and that 283,021 households pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing.
Renters need to earn $14.07 an hour to afford a two-bedroom unit, however more than a quarter of all jobs in Missouri are considered "low wage."
The report also noted that poorer residents in Missouri pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes than wealthier families. For example, residents who earn less than $17,000 pay about 9.6 percent of their income in taxes while residents in the top 1 percent, with average incomes of $941,100, pay about 5.4 percent of their income in taxes.
John Bennett, retired pastor at Community Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), lamented the situation. He said he'd like to see state leaders convene a "non-partisan, high-level commission" charged with examining the report and determining possible solutions.
"Legislative leaders, and the general public, should come together collectively to seriously address poverty," he said.
Wayne Lee, a disability advocate for the Independent Living Resource Center, liked Bennett's idea. "Commissions are important and helpful to legislators because they can study an issue in depth and give ideas for solving it," Lee said.
Calling Medicaid expansion a "moral imperative," Bennett said he'd like to see the Legislature reconsider its opposition to expanding the program, so more low-income people could have access to health care. Lee noted, by not participating, Missouri will lose out on $15.7 billion by 2020.
"That's money that's needed desperately," Lee said.
Tom Kruckemeyer, an economist who works for the Missouri Budget Project, said one way to soften poverty's blow would be to expand the earned income tax credit at the state level. Currently about 530,000 recipients participate in the federal program.
"It's a refundable credit," Kruckemeyer said, noting it's targeted primarily at people working in low-wage jobs and correlated with a family's size. "It pulls people out of poverty. And Ronald Reagan was a staunch supporter of the earned income tax credit."
Kruckemeyer also said fully funding the state's foundation formula for public education also holds the capacity to help more families cope with poverty.
"Better education leads to better work qualifications ... and better jobs," he said.