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U.S. Census: Poverty strikes one in seven

Caitlin Yoshiko Buysse

The U.S. Census Bureau reported last week that 43.6 million Americans — or 14.3 percent of the population — live on less than $22,128 per year.

According to its latest data, the number of poor is the same as the combined populations of Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont.

 This is the highest number of people living in poverty in the United States since 1959, when the federal government began the measurement.

The figures also represent a marked increase since 2008. Last year, 6.3 million more people lived in poverty than in the previous year, including 2.1 million more children.  

Equally startling is that the majority of impoverished families do not live anywhere close to the poverty line. The average income deficit, the difference between income and the poverty threshold, is $9,042, which means the average poor family lives on just $13,086 per year.

The report also revealed that racial minorities were the hardest hit by economic difficulties. The African American poverty rate is 25.8 percent — nearly twice the national level. And Hispanics saw the biggest jump from the past year, with poverty rates up 2.1 percent since 2008.

 Income figures also show vast racial disparities. Black median household income is the lowest of all racial groups in the U.S., at $32,584. Hispanics stand just above this at $38,039. Whites, however, make $54,461 — over $20,000 more than blacks.

Asians top the charts at $65,469. The median household income for all races is $49,777. While incomes of each group have fluctuated over the past four decades, the earning statistics have remained the same, with blacks and Hispanics below the national median, and whites and Asians above.

“It’s scary,” said John Drew, president and CEO of Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD), a social services organization for low-income residents. Based on his work on the ground, Drew agrees that poverty and unemployment are much worse than in previous decades — but also says that Census statistics “don’t capture the real depth of the struggle we’re in.”

“It’s always an undercount,” said Chris Sieber, director of planning at ABCD.

 Drew explained that national data exclude the many people who struggle to live above the poverty line, and Sieber added that the data cannot catch up to the huge number of people coming off unemployment benefits each week.

 In the past year, “we have seen a steep increase in the number of people who have come to us,” said Drew, who estimated a 20-25 percent rise from the usual 80,000 people per year. ABCD received stimulus finding from the Obama administration, allowing the organization to expand programming and find jobs for the unemployed. But this funding expires at the end of the month.

According to data from the Boston Public Health Commission, poverty in Boston significantly surpasses national rates — in 2008, one in five, or 19 percent, Bostonians lived below the poverty line, and nearly 25 percent of children lived in poor households. The following year, 7,529 Bostonians were homeless, up about 1,700 people from the past decade. Children accounted for 31 percent of the homeless.

 Similar to national data, whites had the lowest rates of poverty, and minorities had the highest in Boston. While about 15 percent of whites lived below the poverty line in 2008, approximately 30 percent of Latinos, and 25 percent of blacks lived in poverty. And the black unemployment rate stood at 13 percent, compared to just 5 percent in whites.

 But Drew and Sieber also emphasized that it is youth who have also been hard hit, not just minorities. According to Drew, youth unemployment stands at a staggering 50-60 percent — significantly higher than citywide, and even black adult, rates. Sieber said ABCD research demonstrates that youth unemployment leads to diminished lifetime earnings — jobless teens are less likely to catch up later in life.

 National poverty data were collected by the Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement, a project of the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Numbers were based on surveys conducted this year, and an inflation-adjusted poverty threshold of $22,128 in annual income.

But these poverty measures frequently draw criticism from activists and scholars alike.

 The U.S. government first developed a statistical definition of poverty in the mid-1960s before President Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration of a War on Poverty. The poverty threshold was calculated based on three times the cost of a cheap food budget that met nutritional guidelines. This food budget later evolved into the Thrifty Food Plan used to allot food stamps. By using an absolute measure instead of a relative one, the government was able to definitively determine whether it was winning its war.

Each year since then, the government has re-calculated the poverty threshold based on inflation. But nearly 50 years after the first calculation, critics argue that this number is now arbitrary and does not correspond to the real cost of living, especially because the threshold account for regional differences. So the poverty line in rural Alabama is the same as in New York City.

For instance, a 2008 report by the Boston Medical Center revealed that the real cost of the Thrifty Food Plan in Boston is $752 per month, or $9,024 per year, for a family of four. The national poverty limit would leave a little over $13,100 per year — before paying for taxes, housing, utilities, transportation, education, medical care and all other living expenses — far below the cost of a minimum standard of living in Boston.

Annual poverty rates also fail to capture the huge number of Americans who hover just over the poverty threshold. In his book “The Great Risk Shift,” Yale professor Jacob S. Hacker cites sociologist Mark Rank’s staggering figure that 58.5 percent of Americans live at least one year in poverty between the ages of 20 and 75. These numbers are not inflated by indebted college students, Hacker insists; even excluding 20-25 year olds, this rate still stands around 50 percent.

But other critics claim poverty statistics overestimate the number of poor. The poverty threshold is calculated before tax deductions and public assistance benefits like food stamps. According to its own data, the Census calculates that food stamps move 2.2 million people above the poverty line. And without Social Security, which is included as income, 13 million elderly would fall into poverty.

 But however poverty is defined, the economic plight of millions remains.

 In the 1960s, the last time poverty neared current levels, “people were marching n the streets, calling for a War on Poverty,” said Sieber. “But today, the poor are not being heard.”

For Drew, giving a voice to the poor means a robust national jobs program that will put the millions of unemployed back to work. The government has tried tax cuts and bailouts, but the problem “won’t get solved without a jobs program.”

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