Poverty rates in the United States have climbed to their highest level since 1994, according to a report released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau.
The numbers are sobering. In 2009, 43.6 million people — 14.6 percent of the population - were living in poverty in the U.S., up from 13.2 percent of the population in 2008. The United States currently has the highest number of people in poverty it has ever had since the government began counting in 1959, although the percentage of people this represents is lower than it was then.
Poverty increased most among African Americans, followed by non-Hispanic white citizens.
'Clearly we're seeing the impact of the recession and spreading hardship throughout the society,' Reid Cramer, director of the Asset Building Programme at the policy think tank New America Foundation, told IPS.
Rates are especially dire among children, 20.7 percent of whom currently live in poverty. 'They're bearing the costs of the recession,' said Cramer. 'It's going to impact educational attainment. It's going to impact health.'
The report shows one impact the recession has already had on health: the number of uninsured U.S. residents rose from 46.3 million in 2008 to 50.7 million in 2009. 16.7 percent of people went without insurance in 2009.
Cramer emphasised that the data in the report was collected in 2009. 'Given the fact that the recession is continuing and the economy isn't recovering quickly, 2010 numbers are probably even higher,' he said.
Some also say that the numbers may underestimate the problem because of issues with the way poverty is measured.
In the U.S., poverty is defined by an income falling at or below a nationwide poverty threshold. The threshold does not take into account regional differences in cost of living, nor of assets a household may own or benefits it may receive.
Additionally, said Cramer, the threshold was set decades ago based on the cost of a basket of goods deemed essential for a household's survival. The amount changes each year as the cost of each essential changes, but the contents of the basket itself do not change to reflect the way people live.
Today, for example, people spend much more money on childcare and transportation than they did in the 1960s, when U.S. economist Molly Orshansky defined the poverty threshold.
Though the recession has certainly had a major impact on poverty, it is not the sole factor. 'The issue of stagnant wages has been there for over a decade now,' said Cramer. The real median income today is lower than it was in the late 1990s.'
Gwendolyn Mink, author of 'Welfare's End', said that a weakening of the social welfare safety net over the past few decades also plays a role. 'Since 1980,' she said, 'income supports for low-income people have been withdrawn, eroded, and withheld.'
She believes that the government is not doing enough to alleviate poverty during a bad economic time. 'Between December 2007 and April 2010,' she said, 'Temporary Assistance for Needy Families caseloads increased only 12 percent — even though a 48-percent rise in Food Stamp caseloads attests to the exponential growth in need during that period.'
Cramer points to the record enrollment in the food stamp programme to show that the government has in some ways recognised and responded to the need. 'There are some aspects of the safety net that are playing a really important role,' he said.
He hopes that the government will be able to use the Census Bureau's results to improve its approach to poverty. The report, he said 'calls out for policies that strengthen protections, that help mitigate hardship, and help craft pathways forward.'
© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service
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