As Poverty Rises, Wrong Time to Cut Safety Net
Tuesday’s U.S. Census Bureau report on poverty in the United States shows record numbers of Americans fell into poverty, more families lost access to health care, and child poverty increased dramatically between 2009 and 2010. More than 15 percent of the U.S. population or 46 million people fell below the official poverty level in 2010 — defined as a family of four with income below $22,314 in annual earnings. The real median income fell 2.3 percent to $49,445 and 50 million people went without health care coverage.
While the overall poverty rates tracked up dramatically in 2010, a closer look at subsections of the data reveals a grim picture: Some of the most vulnerable Americans continue to fall deeper into poverty. The share of children in poverty jumped from 20.7 percent to 22 percent or 16.4 million children. Individuals living in deep poverty (50 percent of the poverty level or less than $11,157 for a family of four) increased to 21 million people.
Poverty increased for all racial groups but the data show continued disparities among racial minorities, with poverty among blacks and Hispanics, at 27.4 percent and 26.6 percent respectively, more than double that of whites. Families in communities hardest hit by high unemployment are falling further behind as the jobs deficits continue to impact workers. Since the start of the recession in 2007, the number of men and women working full time, year round with earnings decreased by 6.6 million and 2.8 million respectively. This significant reduction in jobs is a primary cause of the 16.4 million children falling into poverty.
For these children and families, falling below the “official poverty level" means that too often a parent works in a minimum-wage job or works part time and cannot find sufficient work to lift his or her income. It means that children frequently go to school hungry or constantly worry about where they will spend the night. And unfortunately, it means that too often parents must rely on the support of relatives and neighbors to keep their families together. What the poverty numbers fail to fully capture are the stresses that families face as they attempt to make ends meet. The numbers don’t show the hard choices families must make about food, clothing, and other daily necessities that millions of Americans take for granted.
These rising poverty levels—particularly among children—present a troubling outlook for the United States. With millions of families struggling to find employment and regain their foothold on the middle class, far too much is at stake for us not to focus more attention on jobs and ways to get more Americans employed and earning once again. Without these urgent investments in jobs, millions more Hispanic and African American children who are disproportionately impacted will come of age in families where their parents are out of work for months, even years. With the increasing diversity of the United States, this type of inequality among a large segment of the population will present unimaginable long-term consequences.
Among the disturbing news, however, the new data included a positive sign that shows the impact of government intervention. The earned income tax credit and unemployment insurance kept 8.6 million people out of poverty, showing the ongoing need for these critical safety net programs. The overall 2010 poverty data offer a bleak outlook for the fragile U.S. economy but they also provide a clear sign to policymakers that government interventions work to keep more families from falling deeper into poverty and facing further economic hardship.
As our policymakers in Washington and state capitals around the country work to make difficult spending decisions in the coming months, they must abandon the heated political rhetoric and start to implement a balanced approach of budget reductions and investments in job creation and education and training opportunities for more low-income people. If our leaders look instead to a cut-only approach, more struggling families will be pushed further into poverty and away from the middle class.
At a time when 46 million Americans are living in poverty and more than 100 million are facing real economic hardship, cuts in programs such as SNAP, job training programs, and investments in youth programs is the wrong approach. Investments in programs for those at the bottom of our economy help all Americans because they promote demand, which helps drive the U.S. economy. On the other hand, draconian cuts during the fragile economic recovery could push the country back into a recession, causing more Americans to be out of work.
Desmond Brown is a consultant to the Half in Ten antipoverty project at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.