America’s Poverty Rate Increases

English: Number in Poverty and Poverty Rate: 1...

English: Number in Poverty and Poverty Rate: 1959 to 2009. United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The ranks of America’s poor are on track to climb to levels unseen in nearly half a century, erasing gains from the war on poverty in the 1960s amid a weak economy and fraying government safety net.

The news report is so disturbing that it has already been reprinted in multiple publications and on any number of social media feeds.  It also invokes many possible responses—dismay that more people living in poverty; concern that that our safety net is crumbling; alarm that children will be poorer than their parents; and distress over what the future of our nation will be as a result.

Those are not my immediate responses.  I think about the day-to-day reality of being poor.  One recent evening,  I was at Wal-Mart with my husband and my 14-year-old son.   My son needed something for school the next day, but had forgotten to tell us until that evening so we ran to Wal-Mart to get it.  In front of us in the checkout line was an older man buying food. He had Vienna sausage, Spam, day-old white bread, and canned beans.  Nothing in his basket needed to be cooked, and nothing cost more than a dollar.

Because of my years working as a social worker I knew that this man must live somewhere that did not have a stove or microwave.  He could have a room at an SRO, he could be at a shelter, or he could live on the streets.  As we left, I saw him get on his bicycle with his bag. The bicycle was old and had no headlight. It was late, and the Wal-Mart was on a highway—not the sort of location you would want to be riding an old bike without a headlight if you had a choice.  I could only feel sad.

The 2010 poverty level was $22,314 for a family of four, and $11,139 for an individual, based on an official government calculation that includes only cash income, before tax deductions.

It’s very easy to look at this numbers and think only in abstract terms.  But I prefer to think in concrete terms—what do those figures mean when considering what someone needs to live?  The poverty level presumes a family of four can live on less than $22, 314 a year, but how?  Let’s assume rent is low—say $500 a month (and I don’t know anywhere a family of four can find a place for that)—rent alone has already taken up more than a quarter of the year’s money.  And that rent may not include utilities like gas, electric and water—let’s add another $200 a month for that.  Have we talked about transportation?  A car with gas, insurance and maintenance can take a significant portion of the remainder, but even public transportation such as buses and subways require money—travel is not free.  What else is essential?  Food, clothes, insurance, insurance co-pays, over the counter medication (insurance does not pay for aspirin or Benadryl) child care, not to mention cleaning supplies and hygiene products.  Even if a family receives some assistance from the government, that assistance is minimal and limited to food, rent subsidy, or small amounts of cash that usually comes tied to conditions such as work or training programs.

The truth is that it is possible to work full time and still fall under the poverty line.  Indeed, $22,314 a year is equivalent to working full time (40 hours a week, for 52 weeks) for $10.73 an hour, well above the minimum wage in most states.  And it is not the isolated case where working people make that little.  The median wage in the US in 2010 was only $26,364, only $4,050 more than the poverty rate for a family of four.  That means half of all U.S. workers made wages less than that.  It is possible that many live in households where other people work, or that they have taken second or third jobs, but it is still a sobering statistic when the numbers are translated into basic necessities like food, shelter, and clothing.

There are many who say the Federal Poverty Level does not accurately measure poverty (see our blog post about it here).   Many have advocated measuring poverty in terms of basic needs.  The National Center for Children in Poverty has a Basic Needs Calculator, which evaluates how much it really costs to live in a given state and city (or county).  In most places, it costs almost twice the federal poverty level to make ends meet for a family of four.  That is without any extras, no books, no trips to the library, no picnics in the park.

We have talked before about how much more expensive it is to do basic things, like diapering your baby, if you don’t have much money.  And we have also talked about the disadvantages people without money face in getting a good education or otherwise breaking free from the cycle of poverty.  We talk about these things because these are the concrete realities of poverty.  The numbers are disturbing in the abstract, but when you bring them to a personal level, like the man shopping in Wal-Mart, they are downright heartbreaking.

Mismeasuring Poverty

Mark Levinson of The American Prospect has an interesting article, Mismeasuring Poverty, in which he argues that the Federal Poverty Level, developed 50 years ago, measures the wrong expenses. He also argues that the Supplemental Poverty Measure, developed by the current administration, measures the right expenditures, but at the wrong levels.  The U.S. poverty line is now approximately 36% of the nation’s median income rather than 50%, as it was when first established 50 years ago.

Most other developed countries use a measure of poverty based on the share of families below 50 percent or 60 percent of median income. Adam Smith explained the rationale for this in The Wealth of Nations. He defined the lack of “necessaries” as the experience of being unable to consume “not only the commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life, but whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even of the lowest order, to be without.”

Smith seems to speak directly to the issue of families who lack diapers and other basic needs beyond food and shelter.

What do you think?  Does the Federal Poverty Level adequately measure poverty?  Is the Supplemental Poverty Measure the appropriate measure?  Should we find another measure?

Consider helping those who cannot provide diapers for their family members with a donation to the National Diaper Bank Network.

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