The number of Americans living in severe poverty has expanded dramatically under the Bush administration, with nearly 16 million people now living on an individual income of less than $5,000 (£2,500) a year or a family income of less than $10,000, according to an analysis of 2005 official census data.
The analysis, by the McClatchy group of newspapers, showed that the number of people living in extreme poverty had grown by 26 per cent since 2000. Poverty as a whole has worsened, too, but the number of severe poor is growing 56 per cent faster than the overall segment of the population characterised as poor - about 37 million people in all according to the census data. That represents more than 10 per cent of the US population, which recently surpassed the 300 million mark.
The widening of the income gap between haves and have-nots is nothing new in America - it has been going on steadily since the late 1970s. What is new, though, is the rapid increase in numbers at the bottom of the socio-economic pile. The numbers of severely poor have increased faster than any other segment of the population.
"That was the exact opposite of what we anticipated when we began," one of the McClatchy study's co-authors, Steven Woolf of Virginia Commonwealth University, said. "We're not seeing as much moderate poverty as a proportion of the population. What we're seeing is a dramatic growth of severe poverty."
The causes of the problem are no mystery to sociologists and political scientists. The share of national income going to corporate profits has far outstripped the share going to wages and salaries. Manufacturing jobs with benefits and union protection have vanished and been supplanted by low-wage, low-security service-sector work. The richest fifth of US households enjoys more than 50 per cent of the national income, while the poorest fifth gets by on an estimated 3.5 per cent.
The average after-tax income of the top 1 per cent is 63 times larger than the average for the bottom 20 per cent - both because the rich have grown richer and also because the poor have grown poorer; about 19 per cent poorer since the late 1970s. The middle class, too, has been squeezed ever tighter. Every income group except for the top 20 per cent has lost ground in the past 30 years, regardless of whether the economy has boomed or tanked.
These figures are rarely discussed in political forums in America in part because the economy has, in large part, ceased to be regarded as a political issue - John Edwards' "two Americas" theme in his presidential campaign being a rare exception - and because the right-wing think-tanks that have sprouted and thrived since the Reagan administration have done a good job of minimising the importance of the trends.
They have argued, in fact, that the poverty statistics are misleading because of the mobility of US society. A small number of left-wing think-tanks, such as the Economic Policy Institute, meanwhile, argue that the census figures are almost certainly lower than the real picture because many people living in extreme poverty do not answer census questionnaires.
United States poverty league: States with the most people in severe poverty
New York 1.2m
North Carolina 523,511
Source: US Census Bureau
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