Poverty in America


This article is from Think Progress

by Faiz Shakir, Benjamin Armbruster, George Zornick, Zaid Jilani, Alex Seitz-Wald, and Tanya Somanader

Intolerable Poverty In A Rich Nation

Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau released its Current Population Survey, documenting the American population’s access to health insurance and family economic well-being. One stunning fact revealed by the new Census data was that “the ranks of the American poor soared to their highest level in a half a century” and that nearly “44 million Americans — one in seven — lived last year in homes in which the income was below the poverty level, which is about $22,000 for a family of four. While this is the largest number of people since the Census began tracking poverty 51 years ago,” this figure would have been much larger without the economic policies pursued by Congress and the administration. The data is sobering to a national discourse that often omits the poor. Yet, it also points towards continued action to bring the unemployment rate down and boost demand. The country must continue successful policy initiatives that have kept millions out of poverty thus far, such as the Recovery Act, and pursue additional policies aimed at addressing the alarming fact that the world’s richest country now has more people in poverty than ever before.

THE SHAME OF A NATION: The Census Bureau data finds that a shocking number of Americans are now officially classified as living in poverty. In 2009, roughly “4 million Americans  fell into poverty,” with a total of 43.6 million people meeting the income qualifications to be described as impoverished. The data also found that one in four African-Americans is in poverty, and that women are also particularly hurting. An analysis by the National Women’s Law Center of the Census numbers found that the poverty rate for women rose to 13.9 percent last year, compared to 10.5 percent among men. Additionally, poverty rates “were substantially higher for women of color, approaching one in four among African-American women (24.6 percent compared to 23.3 percent in 2008); Hispanic women experienced a similar increase from 22.3 percent in 2008 to 23.8 percent last year.” Geographically, southern and rural states tended to have the most poverty, with Mississippi faring the worst with 23.1 percent of people in poverty, with New Hampshire having only 7.8 percent.

GOOD POLICIES KEEPING PEOPLE AFLOAT: While the poverty numbers are shamefully high given the wealth of a rich nation like the United States, a number of progressive policies have served to keep millions more Americans from falling into poverty. After being passed in early 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) — commonly referred to as the stimulus — saved or created 1.4 million to 3.3 million jobs, according to analysis by the Congressional Budget Office. Additionally, the expansion of tax credits like the Child Tax Credit (CTC), Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and Making Work Pay tax credit, along with additional food stamp assistance and emergency unemployment compensation kept more than 6 million Americans out of poverty, according to data provided by the Census Bureau. Expanding and extending unemployment insurance — which faced enormous opposition from conservative pundits and politicians — alone kept 3.3 million Americans out of poverty.

MORE TO DO: As the Center for American Progress’s Melissa Boteach writes, “We can’t exactly pat ourselves on the back when more than one in five (20.7 percent) of America’s children lived in poverty last year.” Instead, we should expand and extend policies that have served to keep Americans out of poverty and reassert ourselves to combating rising income inequality. America’s earlier efforts to tackle poverty, like President Lyndon Johnson’s “War On Poverty” — included job training, special aid to poor parts of the country, and the creation of the single payer health care system for the elderly, Medicare, that brought the poverty rate down from 19 percent to 11.1 percent within less than a decade. In just two weeks, “a job-creation engine known as the TANF Emergency Fund will expire, forcing states to begin shutting down successful partnerships with the private sector that have already created nearly a quarter million jobs for low-income families. Congress must act before September 30 to extend the TANF Emergency Fund for another year and allow this innovative jobs program to continue.” Congress also must continue reforms it made to the EITC that allowed “families with three or more children to earn a larger credit to reflect the higher cost of raising an additional child” and to the CTC that allowed low-income working parents “to count most of their earnings toward calculating their credit instead of arbitrarily counting only earnings above $8,500.” Doing so would of course cost the federal government money, but extending these tax credits would do much more to boost the economy than extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, which would have little stimulative effect on the economy. Additionally, Congress should continue to extent unemployment benefits until the unemployment rate comes back down to normal levels. While the Census numbers show an alarming rise in poverty, “it’s important to remember, however, that poverty was a problem even before the Great Recession. Between 2003 and 2007 we experienced the first-ever economic ‘recovery’ on record where productivity and profits grew but poverty went up and median incomes fell. The middle class and low-income families did not benefit form the gains accrued over the last decade, which was due to the failed economic policies of the Bush administration and the focus on tax cuts for the wealthy that did not lead to growth in investment.” Only by rebuking failed right-wing policies and championing policies that expand the social safety net, strengthen labor rights, build a more humane and efficient health care system, reward hard work with living wages, and value society’s most vulnerable members, children, can the U.S. rebuild the American Dream, the idea that this a country where all can prosper, not just a select few.

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