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Granite State Rumblings: Lawmakers And Residents Agree We Should Do More To Reduce Poverty

(Image by Jenn Durfey FLIKR CC)

(Image by Jenn Durfey FLIKR CC)

A few weeks ago we started to explore the public’s perception of the people who live in poverty. Let’s continue that conversation today with a look at Granite Staters’ perception of poverty in our state.

New study reveals lawmakers & residents agree:
NH government can and should do more to reduce poverty

Most believe 4 in 10 residents are “working but poor”

New Hampshire residents and lawmakers share a common belief that state government can and should do more to keep people out of poverty.  Recent public opinion research commissioned by the Investing in Communities Initiative also found that Granite Staters perceive poverty as a more real and pervasive problem in the state than official statistics indicate.

Melissa Bernardin

Melissa Bernardin

“The research tells us that the public has a very different view of poverty than official statistics suggest,” said Melissa Bernardin, Investing in Communities Initiative Director.  “They see that many of their friends and neighbors are living on the edge and that they, too, face significant economic uncertainty.”

“The good news is that people have hope that we can do something about it,” she said.

The research was conducted over several months in 2014 to gauge public attitudes towards poverty –including its causes, consequences, and potential solutions.  The research included a telephone survey of 600 NH residents, five focus groups, and interviews with a bipartisan cross-section of 69 NH legislators, to see how lawmakers’ views matched up with public opinion.   Myers Research & Strategic Services, a public opinion research firm, conducted the work on behalf of the Investing in Communities Initiative (ICI).  The Initiative is a nonpartisan project founded in 2013 to build capacity among NH organizations that advocate for low-income and vulnerable people.

“The results tell us some very important things,” said Andrew Myers, principal and CEO of Myers Research.  “People understand the difficulties facing low-income families in New Hampshire. They get it. This may be the Granite State, but people don’t have hearts of stone.”

“Most importantly,” he said, “they want state government to do something about poverty.”

According to Myers, “NH residents understand that other actors, such as nonprofit groups and churches, have a role in addressing poverty. Yet, they believe that government is best suited to solve the problem.”

New Hampshire typically ranks well in state-by-state rankings of poverty and economic distress.  The latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that 8.7% of state residents fell below the Federal Poverty Line in 2013, less than in surrounding states and well below the national average.  However, survey respondents painted a different picture.  When asked what portion of state residents they think are living in poverty (using their own judgment, without an official measurement), they said that more than a quarter (27%) of the state’s population is poor.  When asked to include the ranks of the “working poor,” they estimated that 37% of the state’s population – almost 4 in 10 people – is “working but poor.”

“From the survey results and focus groups, it’s clear that many people are just a costly car repair away from financial ruin, or know others who are,” said Myers.

Interestingly, lawmakers interviewed perceived a lower level of poverty in the state (18 percent) than their constituents (27 percent).

Still, more than half of the lawmakers – a full 57% — reported having been poor themselves.  Of NH residents surveyed, one in four (25%) said they currently have only one month of savings or less to rely on in case of an emergency.

Even with differing views about the prevalence of poverty, the study found agreement among lawmakers (both Democrats and Republicans) and New Hampshire residents as to perceived causes of poverty and potential solutions.  Residents showed strong support for measures to create pathways out of poverty, such as raising the minimum wage, improving access to job training, as well as improving access to affordable child care that will enable parents to work. In fact, 55% of people surveyed said they want the state government to do more to address poverty.

Among legislators interviewed, 61% said that the state government is not doing enough to address the causes of poverty.  They also pointed to “empowerment” types of solutions that emphasized pathways into the job market, although it should be noted that the set of lawmakers interviewed – while bipartisan — was not statistically representative of those in office today. (See description of methodology, attached.)

According to Bernardin, “Many in the Statehouse agree that government can and should do more – that government support for tools such as job training, child care, mental health and substance abuse treatment will help people find and keep jobs that pay enough to support their families.”

Last week Melissa joined Brady Carlson on NHPR to talk about the research. Please take a few minutes to read, or listen to, that conversation here.

The Investing in Communities Initiative is a nonpartisan project dedicated to strengthening the skills, knowledge and expertise of New Hampshire’s nonprofit advocacy field in support of public policies that foster health, wellness, and improved economic and social conditions for all New Hampshire residents.

For more information, contact Melissa Bernardin at the Investing in Communities Initiative, 603-828-2442.

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About MaryLou Beaver

New Hampshire Campaign Director Every Child Matters Education Fund
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