Making Sense of Poverty Numbers

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McClatchy Newspapers

Making Sense of Poverty Numbers

The Great Recession has hit those on the bottom most heavily, adding six million Americans to the ranks of the officially poor.

The number of officially poor is now higher, at nearly 44 million, than at any time in the 51 years of this count. Yet these recent Census numbers hide as much as they reveal.

They don't include the homeless, who number anywhere from half a million to three million. Nor do they count most doubled-up families — experts say they're up by at least 11 percent. And then there's those young adults returning home who at other times would be living independently (the Census estimates 42 percent of them would be poor if still out on their own). Most invisible are those whose incomes are above the poverty line but can't afford the bare necessities, a problem that is most acute in high-cost urban areas.

Only senior citizens have been exempt from the general downward slide. They're the only age group that experienced a decline in poverty and an actual increase in income in 2009. This continues a long-term trend as elders have gone from being the poorest age group in 1959, when more than one in three was poor, to being the least poor group today with a poverty rate under 9 percent. Why? Because seniors, more than any other demographic group, have a working safety net in the form of Social Security, plus Medicare which was added in the 1960s. In 2009, Social Security alone saved over 14 million Americans from falling into poverty.

Workers didn't fare so well. More than 3 million Americans were kept out of poverty by unemployment insurance alone, but millions of other workers are struggling to survive job loss without government help and have little prospect of finding a job in the current economy.

The new poverty also highlights the continuing plight of families with children, especially single-parent families where there is rarely a second income to fall back on when one parent loses a job. The most vulnerable families are those headed by single mothers, and among them the hardest hit are those headed by single women of color. Almost two out of five single mothers are poor, and this isn't for lack of trying: Even now, two-thirds are employed. But in addition to the chronic problems of low wages and unstable and episodic employment, many single mothers have seen their work hours cut in the recession.

Welfare (now called TANF, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) doesn't begin to meet the needs of vulnerable families. Even though there are six people for every job opening in this recession, TANF ironically still insists you have to find a job to get benefits.

And welfare often doesn't last as long as its beneficiaries may need it. Right now, TANF is cutting or eliminating benefits for 85,000 families per month, even as welfare offices are swamped with destitute families who have exhausted all other options. With welfare budgets frozen at pre-recession need levels, officials must choose between spending money on child care for still working mothers and helping families with no income at all.

There are a few bright lights in this dark picture: The TANF emergency fund has created 250,000 subsidized jobs, mostly in the private sector, making the difference for many small enterprises as well as the jobholders and their families. Extended unemployment benefits have sustained the unemployed and their communities. The Recovery Act has saved or created millions of jobs. Yet Congress has turned a blind eye to what clearly works and is clearly needed. Some especially cynical and callous lawmakers are even ignoring worries about deficits and supporting tax breaks for the rich. As we have seen with Social Security, and to a lesser extent the extension of unemployment benefits, food stamps, and housing programs, we can reduce poverty. We know what to do. We just have to have the determination to do it.

Diana Pearce

Diana Pearce, PhD, is Senior Lecturer and Director of the Center for Women's Welfare at the University of Washington School of Social Work.

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