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Blog: My Reaction to New Poverty Statistics

Sep 20, 2011 | By Claire Wheeler

Last week, the Census Bureau released its data on 2010 poverty statistics.  I found the following numbers particularly disturbing:

  • 1 in 6 Americans lived in poverty in 2010.
  • Incomes fell 4-5% for American households in the bottom 20%, more than 6 times as much as those in the top 20%.
  • More than 1 in 5 children are living in poverty. This issue is compounded by the fact that the racial and ethnic wealth gap also expanded in 2010. This is demonstrated by the fact that approximately 40% of African American children live in poverty, while only 12% of Caucasian children are living in poverty.
  • Over 40% of single-mother families lived below the poverty line, compared to 8.8% of families headed by a married couple. Furthermore, more than half a million single women who worked full-time, year round, lived in poverty.

After these 2010 figures were announced, I attended "Poverty and Income in 2010: A Look at the New Census Data and What the Numbers Mean,” a panel arranged by the Brookings Institution. The panelists represented a wide range of ideologies and advocated differing prescriptions for our country’s poverty dilemma. These prescriptions ranged from blaming personal irresponsibility to fully adopting President Obama’s American Jobs Act. One panelist even insinuated that we should put the needs of the most vulnerable on hold until the nation is financially “able” to address that problem. Essentially, the growing wealth gap was of no concern to this panelist.

These opinions were frustrating, needless to say, because although personal responsibility is relevant, it should not be used as a gross overgeneralization for condemning millions of people in situations beyond their control. People need to be provided with the opportunity and resources before being expected to take responsibility for their reality. We also know that people across socioeconomic stratifications are looking for jobs, but we cannot ignore the most vulnerable in our society in our attempts to stimulate our economy. Drastically uneven income growth is harmful to our nation. 

The severity of the poverty numbers is best understood when looking through the lens formed by the majority of the panelists’ testimonies: 1) The 2007 economic recession was much worse than we realized, and will require more drastic steps to repair, 2) Government programs are necessary to diminish the poverty level in our country, and 3) It is feasible to simultaneously lessen the poverty rate while decreasing our nation’s deficit.

Indeed, the new data released by the Census Bureau was altogether grim, to put it lightly. However, there were a couple of positive points that are worth highlighting:

  • The poverty rate did NOT increase significantly among senior citizens. This can be attributed to safety net programs like Social Security; and
  • The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 prevented 4.5 million people from entering poverty.

Through government policy, we can make things better or worse. It is with hope that we look to Obama’s jobs proposal, which one of the panelists predicted will bolster the safety net, keeping 1.5 million fewer people in poverty by extending unemployment insurance. She also predicted that it will create/ save jobs for an additional 1.5 million people, to prevent a total of 3 million people from slipping below the poverty line. Ultimately, jobs are the best antipoverty strategy, and we must be active in voicing our concerns to our representatives, which will help ensure that they enact steps to alleviate the weight of our nation’s predicament.   

For more information on the poverty statistics, click here.