Monday, September 27, 2010

1 in 7 Americans live in poverty

By Carol Morello

In the second year of a brutal recession, the ranks of the American poor soared to their highest level in half a century and millions more are barely avoiding falling below the poverty line, the Census Bureau reported Thursday.

About 44 million Americans - one in seven - lived last year in homes in which the income was below the poverty level, which is about $22,000 for a family of four. That is the largest number of people since the census began tracking poverty 51 years ago. The snapshot captured by the census for 2009, the first year of the Obama presidency, shows an America in the throes of economic upheaval.

Since 2007, the year before the recession kicked into gear, the country has almost 4 million fewer wage-earners. There are more children growing up poor. And for the first time since the government began tracking health insurance in 1987, the number of people who have health coverage declined, as people lost jobs with health benefits or employers stopped offering it. With midterm elections less than two months away, the statistics bare the reality fueling much of the anger toward Washington.

In the Washington region, Virginia's poverty rate rose the most, to 10.5 percent from 8.6 percent. Maryland's edged up half a percentage point to 9 percent. The District's rate was the highest, but it declined from 18 percent to 17 percent.

Although the recession's impact was broad-based, there were disparities among groups. The official poverty rate increased for all races and ethnicities except Asians, who continued to have the highest median household income. More working-age adults lived in poverty, while the number of poor people 65 or older fell, largely as a result of increases in Social Security payments.

More than 51 million Americans lack health insurance, the census reported, and a greater-than-ever percentage of those who do have insurance are getting it from the government.

Scholars, nonprofit groups that work with the poor and President Obama all expressed concern about the gloomy picture.

Obama said the numbers could have been much worse were it not for government assistance.

"Because of the Recovery Act and many other programs providing tax relief and income support to a majority of working families - and especially those most in need - millions of Americans were kept out of poverty last year," he said in a statement.

Many conservatives, however, laid the blame on government programs that don't work.

"We're spending more money fighting poverty than ever before, yet poverty is up," said Michael D. Tanner, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. "Clearly, we're doing something wrong."

Along with a rise in the number of people living in poverty, the census reported a decrease in the number of people who are living just above poverty level, suggesting that many of those just slightly above poverty slipped over the edge in the previous year.

Food banks and shelters around the country say they are seeing former donors asking for help.

Dale City resident Jamie Imler is one. She used to give money to charity and make quilts for homeless shelters. But since she began treatment for breast cancer last year, she has been too weak to work at either of the two jobs she held, one in a restaurant and one for a recruitment agency. Her income has dropped from $2,000 a month to less than $700 - not enough to cover her rent - and she has been coming for the past six months to a food pantry in Prince William County called Action Through Service.

"Things were good," she said. "I was a single mom, raised my son and needed food stamps." "And now I'm here," she added.

While the number of the country's poorest people is higher than in any other recorded period, the rate is not without precedent. The last time it was this high was 1994. And in the early 1960s, it was over 20 percent.

Despite the jump in poverty, median income did not go down for those who still had jobs. Men working full time saw their median earnings rise 2 percent, to $47,000, while the median wage of women rose about the same amount, to a little over $36,000.

The median household income declined a little, to just under $50,000.

But household income is down 4.2 percent since the recession began and 5 percent from its peak of more than $52,000 in 1999. Black households fared particularly poorly, as incomes dropped 4.4 percent compared with 1.6 percent for white households.

"We always have a situation where some population groups have higher poverty rates than others," said Margaret Simms, who directs the Low Income Working Families Project at the Urban Institute. "During recessions, we see who bears the brunt in hard times in the kinds of numbers we see today."

The statistics have quickly become fodder for a debate on the proper role of government in combating economic downturns. "It's a strong indication that there is not enough focus on growth and investment in job production," said Ken Blackwell, the former Ohio state treasurer who is a fellow at the Family Research Council.

Ron Haskins, a head of the Brookings Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution, said government programs do not have enough money to make up for the decline among private and employer- provided health care. "Is the government going to pick it up?" he said. "That means bigger government, bigger expenses, more taxes."

This summer, a proposal to extend jobless benefits to the long-term unemployed came under attack by Republicans, who objected to more spending that would add to the soaring deficit. The measure eventually passed.

Some of those who have struggled to find work are making their way to Good Shepherd Alliance, a food pantry in Loudoun County, which is one of the country's wealthiest jurisdictions.

Vickie Koth, executive director, said she has grown accustomed to hearing clients say, almost as if dazed by their dizzying descent, that they used to volunteer at nonprofits like hers. The downturn will end some day, she noted, and hard times should be remembered.

"A lot of the community is really seeing this issue for the first time," she said. ". . . Once this turns around, I hope that people will remember what we went through so that our communities will be more open to serving those around us who are in need."


Capitol Hill reaction to poverty figures sidetracked by political concerns

Deborah Weinstein, a longtime advocate for the poor, calls the news that one in seven Americans is living in poverty "a national emergency."

But for much of Washington's political class, the shocking new poverty numbers provoked not alarm about the poor but further debate over tax cuts for the middle class.

"We know that a strong middle class leads a strong economy," President Obama told reporters in the Rose Garden on Friday, as he used the new census report, which also showed that middle-class income has dipped slightly over the past decade, to continue making his case for limiting the cuts to family incomes under $250,000.

Meanwhile, Republican leaders in the House and Senate had no reaction to the poverty report. But earlier in the week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) took the Senate floor to argue for extending the tax breaks to everyone, saying, "We can't let the people who have been hit hardest by this recession and who we need to create jobs to get us out of it" be subject to a tax increase.

McConnell's spokesman later clarified the statement, saying that McConnell indeed believes the economic downturn has hit the poor harder than it has high-income business owners, who also have suffered.

The reluctance of political leaders on both sides of the aisle to directly confront the fact that growing numbers of Americans are slipping into poverty reflects a stubborn reality about the poor: They are not much of a political constituency.

"We talk to many people on Capitol Hill who do believe poverty is important and is a blight on our nation," said Weinstein, executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs, an alliance of national organizations that advocates for the poor. "But we are also up against a general recognition that poor people don't vote in great numbers. And they certainly aren't going to be making campaign contributions. That definitely puts them behind many other people and interests when decisions are being made around here."

Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), who counts among his legislative accomplishments bills to extend unemployment insurance and to provide housing for people suffering from AIDS, said that the current downturn has expanded the definition of the poor. No longer are the poor the chronically impoverished who scrape along at the bottom of the economic pecking order in good times and bad. They now include many working people who have been thrown out of their jobs by a brutal recession.

"The fact is, increasingly, we are talking about people we know," McDermott said. Still, he said, "For most elected officials, there is nothing politically in talking about the poor. In fact, they don't vote very well and they are not very participatory in political life. Politicians tend to talk to people who get involved."

McDermott said he has been urging his colleagues to take a fresh look at poverty. The new report showed that the ranks of the American poor soared to their highest level in half a century in 2009. Meanwhile, millions more are existing just beyond the poverty line, which is about $22,000 a year for a family of four.

The official poverty rate is just one aspect of the economic upheaval unleashed by the recession. Since 2007, the country has lost almost 4 million wage earners. And for the first time since the government began tracking health insurance in 1987, the number of people who have health coverage declined, a circumstance destined to change when the Obama-led health-care overhaul fully kicks in by 2014.

With foreclosures continuing to rise and long-term unemployment at record levels, McDermott said, the legacy of the economic crisis will affect society in a way the country has not experienced since the aftermath of the Great Depression.

Even amid the devastating downturn, Americans seem ambivalent toward the needy. The instinct to help those in tough straits is often constrained by a lurking feeling that the poor are to blame for their own problems. Or, that what helps the needy might take something away from everyone else.

The debate over extending unemployment benefits, which now last as long as 99 weeks, generated increasing commentary that the benefit was sapping people of the desire to work.

Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, said that more than two decades of polling shows that a solid, if fluctuating, majority of Americans believe government has a responsibility to care for the poor.

"But as you begin to ask more specific questions, you get lower levels of support for specific programs as people worry about costs, taxes and the rise of government," Kohut added. "Plus, there is a great deal of political polarization of this."

A 2009 Pew survey found that 63 percent of Americans believed government should take care of those who cannot take care of themselves. But that number fell to 48 percent when people were asked whether government should help the needy even if it increases the debt. Nearly two in three Democrats, 43 percent of independents and 29 percent of Republicans agreed with that statement.

All of which explains why even many staunch Democrats have not talked much about poverty.

On Thursday, hours after the Census Bureau released the poverty numbers, Obama issued a written statement that quickly broadened the discussion beyond the poor.

"Today, the Census Bureau released data that illustrates just how tough 2009 was," the statement said. "Even before the recession hit, middle class incomes had been stagnant and the number of people living in poverty in America was unacceptably high, and today's numbers make it clear that our work is just beginning."