Poverty hits 50-year high, Census Bureau says

Posted Sept. 13, 2011, at 6:21 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 14, 2011, at 4:50 a.m.

WASHINGTON — High joblessness and the weak economic recovery pushed the ranks of the poor in the United States to 46.2 million in 2010 — the fourth consecutive increase and the largest number of people living in poverty since record-keeping began 52 years ago, the Census Bureau reported Tuesday.

The share of all people in the U.S. who fell below the poverty line rose to 15.1 percent last year from 14.3 percent in 2009. That matched the poverty rate reached in 1993 before falling steadily to 11.3 percent in 2000. Since then the poverty rate has risen, accelerating after the recession began in late 2007, and is now approaching levels not seen since Lyndon B. Johnson launched the War on Poverty in 1965.

Last year the share of children under 18 living in poverty jumped to 22 percent, from 20.7 percent the previous year.

The Census Bureau’s report also showed that the number of people without health care coverage rose to 49.9 million last year from 49 million in 2009, though the percentage of uninsured was statistically unchanged. And there was a further erosion of incomes at the middle of the middle class.

Inflation-adjusted median household income in the U.S. fell 2.3 percent in 2010 from a year ago, to $49,445.

Taken together, the data all point to the severe and widespread financial strains of a nation in the throes of an economic crisis. And the report, coming shortly after President Barack Obama’s proposed package of $447 billion in tax cuts and spending to revive job growth and the recovery, is almost certain to intensify the debate over the government’s role in helping the poor and unemployed at a time of budget deficits and painful cutbacks in public services. Extended federal unemployment benefits, for example, helped some people rise above the poverty line.

Analysts had widely expected the poverty rate for last year to edge higher, given that the nation’s unemployment rate averaged 9.6 percent in 2010 compared with 9.3 percent the previous year. The latest jobless figure, for August, was 9.1 percent.

By the Census Bureau’s latest measure, the poverty threshold last year was an income of $11,139 for one person and $22,314 for a family of four.

The government’s official poverty rate doesn’t count food-stamp benefits and low-income tax credits as income. If those programs, which totaled about $150 billion last year, were included, many more people would have been counted as being above the poverty line.

At the same time, analysts say other factors understate the real level of poverty in the U.S. Many more young adults have stayed or moved back home because they can’t find jobs, and others have doubled up with friends and relatives. Moreover, experts agree that the poverty thresholds, designed in the early 1960s, do not capture people’s spending and living needs in today’s economy.

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