Poverty in America: The Poor Are Getting Poorer

By Spriggs, William E. | The Crisis, January/February 2006 | Go to article overview
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Poverty in America: The Poor Are Getting Poorer

Spriggs, William E., The Crisis

In August 2005, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that for the past four years, the poverty rate in the United States has been increasing. This is a marked reversal of an annual trend from 1993 to 2000 when poverty was declining.

According to the Census Bureau, the poverty rate rose from 12.5 percent in 2003 to 12.7 percent in 2004. The Black poverty rate - 24.7 percent - is almost twice that of the general population. About 9.4 million African Americans, almost one-in-four, lived below the poverty line in 2004. That figure includes an increase of more than 1.4 million ., Black people (equivalent to the entire population of Phoenix, Ariz.) who have slipped into poverty since 2000.

Most Americans are oblivious to the plight of the poor. But shortly after the Census Bureau released the above figures, extended coverage of the aftermath : of Hurricane Katrina brought the challenges the population faces into sharp relief. Television screens in homes across the country put a face on poverty statistics that was hard to ignore - the poor are disproportionately Black, women and children.

While most Americans were alarmed to learn how precarious life is for poor people, conservative pundits like George Will dismissed poverty as simply the result of too many Black babies and too many irresponsible Black men. That cold assessment ignores the Census Bureau report, and does not help Americans understand the real problems facing America's poor, many of whom get up and go to work everyday.

Defining Poverty

There are several elements to understanding the poverty problem. First, is the definition of poverty. The official poverty line refers to annual cash income, ignoring noncash federal assistance such as housing subsidies and food stamps for example. But it is also a pre-tax figure, so it ignores cash income from the Earned Income Tax Credit that some working families with children are eligible to receive.

The poverty line was originally developed by Mollie Orshansky, an economist working for the Social security Administration. Using data from the Department of Agriculture, she established the cost of the Department of Agriculture's recommended basic minimum basket of food typical for the budget of low-income families. She then used data on middle-income families to estimate that families spent roughly one-third their income on food. Thus, multiplying the cost of the lowincome food basket by three gave her a measure of income needed to provide a basic diet. Her article was published in July 1963, and she revised her measure fora 1965 article.

Because her work coincided with the passage of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. President Johnson's "War on Poverty" adopted it to establish the working numbers for the anti-poverty measures of the Office of Economic Opportunity. Since then, that basic number has been updated to reflect general increases in inflation.

For 2004. the poverty level for a single head of household, over the age of 65 was $9.060 a year: for a family of three, with two children it was $15.219: while for a family of four with two children, it was $19,157.

Who is Poor?

Thirty-seven million Americans are living in poverty. In 2004. 13 million American children lived below the poverty line, roughly three-in-seventeen. Their ranks had swelled by nearly 200,000 from 2003, or roughly 3,000 more children falling into poverty each week.

Among African Americans, the highest poverty rates occur in families headed by single women, and people in those families make up 58 percent of all poor African Americans. Not surprisingly, by age group, the highest poverty rates occur for African American children - those under 18. and they make up 43 percent of all poor African Americans. African American seniors, those 65 and older, have a poverty rate of 23.8 percent.

In contrast to African Americans, people living in families headed by single women account for 34 percent of poor Hispanics.

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