Poverty Today in the U.S. And What it Means
President and Chief Executive Officer
Poverty Today in the U.S. And What it Means
Poverty in the United States continues to be an intractable problem, more so today than at any time in recent memory.
While progress was made in reducing poverty, particularly over the second half of the last century, the aftermath and continuing influence of the Great Recession has spiked the numbers of the poor, particularly the poorest of the poor.
Poverty is more widespread today that we’ve seen in decades. Those living in extreme poverty – at half of the federal poverty line – are at historically high levels, as measured by the Census Bureau since 1975.
The Census Bureau last year reported twice on the level of poverty – once using its traditional measures, which showed the U.S. poverty rate at more than 15 per cent, and a second time using newer, alternative measures, which showed a poverty rate of 13.4 percent.
The numbers of those living in extreme poverty, now accounting for 10 percent of the nation’s poor, according to a recent Brookings Institution study, grew by more than a third over the last decade, erasing most of the big gains that we made in the 1990s during an era of economic resurgence.
It’s noteworthy that here in New York City (in the Census Metropolitan Area that also includes parts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania), the numbers of those living in extreme poverty declined significantly over the last decade. While we have more than 370,000 persons living in extreme poverty, that’s 108,000 fewer than in 2000.
But that’s only a glimmer of good news. The City’s “concentrated poverty rate” (those living in extreme poverty neighborhoods) probably exceeds 20 per cent, double the national rate, according to the Brookings report.
And let’s be clear, the Census data shows that the number of those identified as poor exceeds 2.3 million persons.
The Census Bureau’s alternative measures from last year show that the numbers of older adults facing poverty is increasing, attributable, some speculate, to the high medical cost they face.
The striking thing here when one looks at all the recent data is just how widespread poverty is today.
An Indiana University report, released in January, looked at Census data and determined that since the start of the Great Recession, the numbers of those living below the poverty line surged by some 27 percent, adding 10 million people.
The Census Bureau’s “alternative measures” report, cuts that number in half, by adding in the contributions made by programs such as food stamps, housing assistance and tax credits, the impact of which aren’t considered in the traditional poverty measurement.
What does this all mean?
No matter how you measure it, poverty is growing throughout much of the country.
The real problem, however, is that we’re losing our wherewithal to do something about it.
At the federal level, we face huge deficits. The states, including our own New York, have been hard hit by declining revenues.
Unfortunately, the most visible target, if not the biggest, that budget cutters have zeroed in on are the safety net programs, even though such programs had nothing to do with the financial pressures and deficits now faced by government at all levels.
States, including New York, have already made cuts to safety net programs. At the federal level, cutting the $1.6 trillion-plus deficit is likely to bring further cuts to the safety net. These programs are spending at levels we currently can’t afford. “Can’t afford” because, for various reasons, elected officials are unwilling to propose and pass tax increases.
A lot of attention has focused on Representative Paul Ryan’s budget plan. Ryan, who chairs the House Budget Committee, has put forth a wide-ranging redesign of safety net programs and their financing.
Those who advocate on behalf of the needs of the poor, have been united in their opposition to Representative Ryan’s plan. The Catholic church has been extremely vocal. In letter to Congress, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said, “A just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons.”
Last week, 90 professors at Georgetown University, a Jesuit school, called Ryan’s plan one that “decimates food programs for struggling families, radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick, and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few.”
Community-based organizations, which rely on government revenues from safety net programs, provide care and services for many marginalized, hard-to-serve, vulnerable populations.
Those are the populations now caught in the growing numbers of those living in poverty and facing rising need, while, at the same time, there is declining financial support for the programs that help them.
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