Rising Poverty Reflects Diminishing American Dream

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The San Francisco Chronicle

Rising Poverty Reflects Diminishing American Dream

by
San Francisco Chronicle Editorial

Even Americans who have become numbed by the monthly release of perpetually pessimistic unemployment numbers - a "jobless recovery" is the ultimate oxymoron - should be jolted by the release of the latest Census Bureau figures on the economic state of the nation's households.

The report offers a portrait of a nation that is drifting steadily into a land of haves and have-nots - with the latter group suffering the most in the past decade. It also documents the degree to which California has been hit by the sharp downturn and weak recovery. In 2010, 16.3 percent of Californians were living below the poverty line, a full percentage point increase from the previous year and higher than the national average of 15.1 percent.

Many of the values Americans hold dear are at risk if this trend continues:

-- Land of equal opportunity? Some 27 percent of African Americans were living below the poverty level, a 2 percentage point increase from the previous year and nearly triple the rate of whites in poverty.

-- Generational advancement? The survey suggests a growing number of young single people would be living in poverty if not provided refuge with friends and relatives.

-- Hard work gets rewarded? The difficulty in finding a job pervades the report: Payroll jobs fell by 600,000 in 2010, and 48 million people between 18 and 64 did not work even one week during the year.

Perhaps the biggest toll is on this nation's innate sense of optimism that, no matter how bleak or bullish the moment, better times lie ahead. Median household income, adjusted for inflation, dropped to 1997 levels - the longest span of flat wages since the Great Depression.

Meanwhile, Washington remains mired in partisanship and finger-pointing. If this report does not set off alarms, and instill a sense of bipartisan urgency, then nothing will.

The pain of this sustained downturn is very real, and the inequities it aggravates are very disturbing. What Americans are experiencing is more than a temporary loss of jobs. These numbers represent an erosion of American ideals. Their reversal must become Washington's highest priority.

46 million: Americans living below the official poverty line, highest in the 52 years the government has published the figure

$22,314: Poverty line in 2010 for a family of four

45%: Single 25-to-34-year-olds living with friends or family and who earned less than $11,344, poverty line for a single person

4.6%: Year-to-year drop in Californians' median household income (to $54,459) in 2010, the largest single-year decline on record

12%: Drop in household income of the bottom 10 percentile in past decade. Top 10 percentile income dropped 1.5 percent

900,000: Increase in number of Americans without health insurance, bringing total to 49.9 million
 

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