A Wake-Up Call on Poverty


Photograph Source: sylvar – CC BY 2.0

This fall, the Census Bureau released new poverty data showing a stunning reversal in economic security over the course of last year. The findings included a record jump in the Supplemental Poverty Measure just one year after hitting a record low. Child poverty doubled.

Some 12.4 percent of Americans were poor last year, according to that measure. But when you crunch the numbers fully, the number of poor and low-income people in this country rose to more than 135 million. That’s over 40 percent of the nation’s population.

If this sounds like a bigger number than we usually hear about, that’s because it is.

The 135 million figure includes everyone living below the poverty line and everyone living precariously right above it. We need to pay attention to this bigger number for two reasons: First, it shows that poverty is more widespread than the official numbers reflect. And second, it shows what measures can be taken to address poverty once and for all.

To be counted as “poor,” a household’s income must fall below a certain threshold. For an adult under the age of 65, that’s just over $15,000. For a two-adult, two-child household, it’s just under $30,000.

These numbers are absurdly low. They mean that someone earning $20,000 wouldn’t be considered poor, nor would a family with an income of $40,000 —- even though just one medical emergency, car accident, climate disaster, or lay-off would push those households into financial ruin.

To get a better sense of economic insecurity in the nation, researchers often look at everyone whose incomes fall both below those thresholds and right above them. This broadens the count from 40 million people who are “poor”  to 135 million people who are “poor or low-income,” just one emergency away from economic despair.

That number includes Americans of every color. But the racial disparities are stark.

While nearly half (61.8 million) of those 135 million were white, other groups faced much higher rates of hardship. Under this definition, some 60 percent of Latinos (38 million), 54 percent of Black non-Latinos (22.5 million), and 58 percent of American Indian or Alaskan Natives (2.3 million) were poor or low-income.

Being poor can have life-threatening consequences. According to research from the University of California, Riverside, poverty was the fourth leading cause of death in 2019, accounting for between 500 and 800 deaths a day. This was before the pandemic wrought even greater havoc on poor communities.

Only when we appreciate the breadth and depth of this insecurity can we develop the appropriate social and policy response. As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in 1967, “the prescription for the cure rests on an accurate diagnosis of the disease.”

Here too, the Census Bureau’s SPM report is illuminating.

It shows the impact of government programs like Social Security, stimulus payments, unemployment insurance, and the expanded Child Tax Credit on poverty and economic hardship. In 2021, those programs brought the poor and low-income population down from 139 million to 112 million.

As many of those programs expired in 2021, those numbers increased by 20 percent in 2022 to 135 million.

In short, after a stunning experiment in reducing poverty through pandemic relief programs, we’re seeing a return to pre-pandemic conditions —  when millions of people were facing eviction, hunger, low-wages, and health crises, and when wealth inequality was at historic highs.

For poor and low-income people, this isn’t new news. It’s a reminder that the nation’s return to “normal” comes at the expense of their lives and well-being.

For policymakers, this should be a wake-up call. We know what works — now let’s do it.

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