During the last three decades, the average income of a Cambridge resident has more than doubled while the percent of the population living in poverty remains unchanged. Despite this, Cambridge has neither an identifiable anti-poverty program, nor has fighting poverty been established as a goal by the City Council. Indeed, the Council goals seem more aligned with fiscal conservatism than progressive Cambridge.
Many Programs, Little Focus
A review of the City current budget, a 600 page document, shows that the word "poverty" appears nowhere. "Low income" appears 13 times, with multiple mentions of low income senior housing in Riverside, low income fuel assistance, and the Cambridge Health Alliance's service to low income patients.
This is not to say that Cambridge doesn't have a myriad of programs that provide assistance to low income residents, the homeless and at risk families, senior or others. Assistance includes food pantries, fuel assistance and job training for the "unengaged". Ellen Semonoff, Assistant City Manager for Human Services, acknowledges that there is "no one focused effort on poverty" but points in particular to two of the over fifty programs listed on the Human Services web page as "support[ing] individuals or families lifting themselves out of poverty or avoiding generational poverty." The Cambridge Works Transitional Jobs program seems a quintessentially Cambridge program, using a case management approach to, one by one, intervene with individuals 18-35 years old who have significant barriers to employment. Baby University supports families with children under 3 s to take the steps that will provide the best opportunities for their children to become healthy productive adults.
Poverty Hasn't Been a Priority for the City Council
The City Council goals for the City speak first of a "Strong Fiscal Position", next of strengthening of Human Services programs for "residents of all ages", and later of supporting and creating affordable housing. As with a national economic policy that treats deficit control as sacrosanct regardless of the social costs, Cambridge's priorities seem to reflect Cambridge's past fiscal troubles rather than its current economic vitality.
In the last two years, the term of the previous City Council, "poverty" appeared 12 times in Policy Resolutions, Committee and City Officer reports and the City Manager's agenda. Six of these were routine appropriations the City's fuel assistance program. The four council Orders expressed concern about federal benefit cuts or support for federal policies. The remaining two were committee reports about Central Square. "Low income" makes a similar pattern of appearance, with routine appropriations predominating, and various committee reports about affordable housing.
Tea Party Cambridge
A budgetary philosophy rooted in avoiding tax increases and appeasing credit rating agencies would seem more aligned with the right wing of the Rebulbican Party rather than thoroughly progressive Cambridge. Yet, in his September 30, 2013 letter to the City Council (PDF) seeking approval tax rates for this year, City Manager Richard Rossi writes:
I am pleased to inform you that the actual FY14 property tax levy of $328,544,945 reflects a $11,597,175 or 3.66% increase from FY13, which is significantly lower than the estimated increase projected in May 2013 and what was presented to the rating agencies in January.
What that means to residential taxpayers is spelled out later:
In addition, approximately 74.1% of residential taxpayers will see a reduction, no increase or an increase of less than $100 in their FY14 property tax bill. Another 13.5% of residential taxpayers will see an increase between $100 and $250. Therefore, a total of 87.6% of the residential taxpayers will see no increase or an increase of less than $250. This will be the ninth year in a row that a majority of residential taxpayers will see either a reduction, no change or an increase of less than $100.
As the average income of Cambridge residents has doubled, the amount of money they pay in Cambridge taxes has remained, for the most part, unchanged. This is not the action of a City Manager out of touch with Cambridge values. Instead, it is in keeping with the goals and priorities set by the Council.
Residents Step Into the Gap
The Cambridge Public Schools provide reduced cost or free lunches to 45% of its students meaning that, for many of these students, school-provided food is their primary nutritional support. What happens to these students on weekends or holidays? A Cambridge anti-poverty strategy would have recognized this gap in the safety net and found means to address it. Instead, this was noticed by residents who created the Cambridge Weekend Backpack Program. Supported primarily by private donations, this program quietly provides students with fresh food for the weekends. In December, the City Council asked the City Manager to consider fully funding this program. Why should this even be a question?
Cambridge doesn't calculate poverty consistently
There is no more indication of Cambridge's indifference to its poverty rate than its inconsistent calculation. For the year 2000, the last for which complete census data are available, Cambridge publishes three different poverty rates. The Census Bureau calculates Cambridge's 2000 poverty rate to be 12.9%. The City's most recent demographic publication, the Neighborhood Statistical Profile (PDF), calls the poverty rate 11%.1. The City's own display of the 2000 census data says the poverty rate is 15%. The City's 2011 Statistical Profile (PDF) gets it right, matching the Census Bureau's 12.9%. There are methodological considerations that could explain these variations. The Census Bureau does not assess poverty for people living in institutional housing and excludes them when calculating the poverty rate. Cambridge seems not to be as careful in its own methodologies. If Cambridge were focused on poverty, it's unlikely that it would declare its poverty rate to be three different numbers without explanation.
Where's the Cambridge War on Poverty?
Fifty years ago this week, President Lyndon Johnson announced America's War on Poverty, creating a set of social programs that have mitigated the effects of poverty, but this safety net is fraying. Cambridge has a history of stepping up to the issues of our times that we believe the national government to be neglecting. We have a Peace Commission, a Women's Commission, and a Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Commission. Where's the Cambridge Poverty Commission? When Federal policies created a tax disadvantage for couples in same sex marriages, Cambridge taxpayers made up the difference. When Federal policies cut off unemployment insurance or nutritional assistance, why aren't Cambridge taxpayers even asked about their priorities?
Cambridge is enjoying extraordinary growth with almost unfathomable wealth being created in Kendall Square. The City of Cambridge has used the growth of its tax base to keep tax rates stable and please credit ratiing agencies. But, with per capita income doubling, Cambridge residents ability to pay higher taxes seems quite real. For a city whose nickname comes from a history of progressive polcies, The People's Republic of Cambridge seems to be an ironic joke.
A new City Council term starts Monday.
Update: Cliff Cook, Cambridge's Planning Information Manager has acknowledged the issues in the poverty rate this article identified. The Census Tract demographic data linked to data from 2005-2009 instead of 2000. This error, he says, has been corrected. The neighborhood poverty rates appear to have been calculated incorrect, according to Cook, and is being more carefully investigated.