Census Data Show Poverty’s Creep, Lasting Effects of Recession

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The Census Bureau’s Tuesday report that nearly 46.2 million Americans — one in six citizens — live in poverty shouldn’t be entirely surprising given that economic conditions have continued to worsen in the more than two years since the Great Recession officially ended. Just this month, the federal government reported that the national unemployment rate remains at an abysmal 9.1%, and a record 45.8 million receive food stamps. But the new Census data are arresting nonetheless.

In 2010, the country’s poverty rate rose to 15.1%, the highest since 1993. More Americans are impoverished than at any point in nearly five decades of record-keeping. Since the recession began in 2007, median household income has fallen 6.4%, to $49,445. Some 5.9 million people between ages 25 and 34 live with their parents, an increase of about 25% from 2007. About 45.3% of those young adults would be in poverty if they lived alone. The number of uninsured Americans rose slightly, to about 50 million. The number of people receiving some form of government health care also increased slightly, to 95 million. The share of Americans on private health insurance continued a decade-long decline. In short, says Ron Haskins, a Brookings Institution senior fellow: “The news on economic well-being in the U.S. is not good.”

The data could push poverty back into the national conversation. Earlier this summer, Tavis Smiley, the talk show host, and Cornel West, the Princeton professor, led a tour aiming to bring attention to what they call “the new poor” – people who once believed they were solidly middle class. Indeed, the economic crisis has even struck the well-educated, who often command the highest salaries.. Poverty is rising in cities and suburbs – but, interestingly, not outside major metropolitan areas. And the crisis is fundamentally changing American society: We go to restaurants less frequently, and when we do, it’s to chains like Subway, not Applebee’s. Discount stores such as Dollar General are expanding. For the first time in recent history, food companies are preparing to introduce to the U.S. market smaller-sized packaged goods to appeal to cash-strapped consumers. (For example: frozen microwavable meals without dessert.)

One of the most disturbing findings is that the child poverty rate rose to 22%. Nearly 40% of black children live in poverty, as about one-third of Latino youth.

But polls show the national mood isn’t so charitable. That’s why advocates for the poor are bracing for bad news as a 12-member congressional “supercommittee” debates how to trim some $1.5 trillion from the federal budget. According to a recent Brookings Institution report, services for children accounted for about 11% of the federal budget, or $374 billion, in 2010. That figure’s expected to fall sharply in the coming years. “Every single program is on the table,” says Catherine Beane, policy director of the Children’s Defense Fund, in Washington. Some of the most vulnerable programs are those that spend heavily on children: Medicaid and food stamps. Cuts could reverse the expansion of health insurance to children. “You’ve got growing child needs, and shrinking state budgets,” Beane observes, “at the same time that the federal safety net for working families is being rolled back.”

For a sense of what’s at stake, consider Building Futures. The Washington-based program’s mission is to promote “middle-skill” jobs that don’t necessarily require a college degree. Nearly 80% of the program’s budget comes from the federal government. But in recent months, the program has cut its participant rolls to 140. The $10 per-hour stipend to cover participants’ transportation and lunch has been shaved to $10 a day. “That some funding remains leaves room for hope,” says Donna Addkison, CEO of Wider Opportunities for Women, which runs Building Futures. That means there may be fewer stories like Gloria Morrison. When the 26 year old lost her pizza delivery job last fall, she became depressed. Eventually, Morrison found Building Futures, and several days a week, from 8 a.m. to mid-afternoon, the high-school graduate took courses in math, reading blueprints, and how to deal with conflict, especially in the male-dominated construction world. “They whipped us into shape,” she says. After several weeks of interviews, Morrison recently landed an apprenticeship. “Each interview,” Morrison said, prepared her “for the next step.”