Monday, April 18, 2011

LIHEAP, and income differences vs. poverty

Median incomes are a wonder -- in this case, the family-of-four totals announced today for the LIHEAP home energy assistance program. A household of four people who bring in 60% or less of their state's median income may qualify for LIHEAP assistance. That means $61,276 in Connecticut, at the top, and $32,700 in New Mexico, at the bottom.

(What's left of LIHEAP, that is. The Obama budget deal last week took $390 million out of LIHEAP's emergency contingency fund. Is this what we worked for in 2008?)

Funny to think of New Mexico as poorer than Mississippi. Maybe goes to show money isn't everything. There are probably a lot of worse places than New Mexico to be poor. Connecticut, for one.

As a freelancer for the business magazine Affordable Housing Finance, I used to write up New Mexico's low-income housing tax credit program once a year. The program came across as well-managed. The staff responded frankly and promptly to requests for information, without the close-mouthed behavior we saw in some other state programs. It was always especially nice to see pictures of the projects. New Mexico's tax credit allocators have worked a design competition into the criteria for developers. LIHTC projects in general tend toward your basic slabs of stucco -- for some reason usually painted brick red or ochre yellow. But New Mexico's tax credit housing tends toward stuff like this site-tailored, environmentally conscious project in Taos.

So, what does "poor" mean exactly? Maybe steep income contrast in a community is a greater danger than shared poverty? I mean, income contrast is a problem in Taos of course, but in New Mexico generally there seems to be some sense of sharing, and of government responsibility to the people, that must mitigate the hard times better than in other places.

Probably I'm romanticizing to some degree out of ignorance. But is there a kernel of truth here?

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