Poor America

U.S. poverty-watchers have long expected another uptick in the poverty rate, and on Tuesday the Census put numbers to that (correct) expectation: 46.2 million Americans fell below the federal poverty line in 2010, a full 15.1% of the population. That marks the third annual increase in the poverty rate. In 2009, 14.3% of Americans were in poverty; in 2008, 13.2% were.

For a real-world sense of what that means, consider that in 2010, the federal poverty line for a family with two adults and two children was $22,113.

This, of course, is the continued impact of the Great Recession. The recession may have “ended” in June 2009, but the unemployment rate is still at 9.1%. We are also now starting to see the waning effects of stimulus spending, which, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, managed to keep 4.5 million people out of poverty in 2009.

In other words, this story is going to be with us for a long while yet. And so we should be clear about what that story is.

The “new poor,” as the media like to call them, dominate the headlines. Losing a job, not to mention one’s home, is a traumatic experience whether a person starts out in the middle class or with a long history of poverty spells. Business-cycle-induced poverty is no less real than poverty that existed during the flush years.

But, as researchers writing in the new Russell Sage book The Great Recession point out, people who were most prone to fall into poverty in the first place are having the toughest time in the current economic climate. Employment has fallen most dramatically for the youngest workers (those aged 16 to 30 and not in school), for high-school dropouts, and for people with only a high-school degree.

In a chapter about poverty and the recession, Timothy Smeeding, Jeffrey Thompson, Asaf Levanon, and Esra Burak, cite 2010 data showing that 15% of all high school dropouts are unemployed, compared with 4% of college graduates, and that more than 30% of young black men aged 16 to 24 are out of work. The researchers discuss the industries that were hardest-hit by the recession, pointing out that for some—like manufacturing—the job loss started long before the most recent downturn.

And so the thing we need to keep in mind is this: the issues of under-education, disconnected youth, and a changing U.S. industrial landscape are not going to magically disappear in the next business-cycle upswing.

While some approaches to poverty alleviation should be short-term—cranking up programs like unemployment benefits and food stamps has done wonders to stave off even more poverty—now is not the time to only think short-term.

Take a look at this graph, from this week’s Census release:

The poverty rate has definitely increased since the recession began in December 2007. But it was also trending up beforehand.

Barbara Kiviat is a David Bohnett Fellow at New York University's Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.