Poverty Rates Hit 15-Year High

September 17, 2010 | The Philadelphia Inquirer |  Link to article

Driven by the relentless recession, the U.S. poverty rate soared to 14.3 percent in 2009, its highest level in 15 years, new government figures show.

The rate was up from 13.2 percent in 2008, according to a report the Census Bureau released Thursday.

Locally the picture was less dire, with poverty rising slightly to 11.1 percent in Pennsylvania and to 9.3 percent in New Jersey.

The number of people in poverty nationally rose from 39.8 million in 2008 to 43.6 million in 2009 - the most in the 51 years for which poverty figures are available.

Meanwhile, the rate of children younger than 18 living in poverty increased from 19.0 percent to 20.7 percent - a jump of 1.4 million to a total of 15.5 million. The child-poverty rate was the highest since 20.8 percent in 1995.

The report also showed median household income fell to $49,777 in 2009 from $50,112 in 2008, a drop that the Census Bureau characterized as "not statistically different."

Along with the rise in poverty, the report showed an increase in the ranks of the uninsured. The number of people without health coverage rose from 46.3 million in 2008 to 50.7 million in 2009.

The percentage of people covered by private insurance - 63.9 percent - was the lowest since 1987, the first year such data were collected.

People such as Brenda Stuart, 35, a North Philadelphia mother of four, don't need a government report to tell them times are tough.

After 19 years together, she and her boyfriend broke up last year because of too many stresses. He was a truck driver making $500 a week. Stuart was earning around $225 a week as the supervisor of a thrift store on Erie Avenue.

Not long after the boyfriend left, Stuart was laid off because of the economy. Recently, her unemployment insurance ran out.

The couple's comfortable apartment - with parquet floors in the living room and artwork on the walls - was once affordable, but is now too much for Stuart.

Rent is $773 a month. Stuart receives $743 a month in food stamps and gets $643 a month for her oldest son's Supplemental Security Income. The 17-year-old is autistic, and Stuart must bathe and shave him.

The yearly SSI-food stamps income is $16,632, well below the federal poverty rate for a family of five, $25,790.

The food is starting to run out, and Stuart admonishes her children, ages 2 to 17, to conserve. She said their hunger frightened her.

" 'There's no more money,' I tell them," she said. " 'You have to eat less.' "

Stuart limits herself to one meal a day. "I get frustrated for lack of food," she said. "My kids just get so hungry. I tell them we have to do the best we can till the food stamps come back again next month."

Stuart said that she was looking for a part-time job, but that the pickings were slim. It's almost as though people accept rough economic times as a given, Stuart said.

Experts concur.

"That poverty rose in the census report is no surprise," said John Iceland, professor of sociology and demography at Pennsylvania State University. "The fact is unemployment soared over the last couple of years, and this is basically what we're seeing. There is a high correlation among unemployment, recession, and poverty."

Elizabeth Lower-Basch, an analyst with the Center for Law and Social Policy, an antipoverty policy group in Washington, added, "It doesn't take the Census Bureau to tell you a lot of people are hurting in this country because of the recession."

Among various racial groups, the report shows, the poverty rate increased from 8.6 percent in 2008 to 9.4 percent in 2009 for whites, from 24.7 percent to 25.8 percent for African Americans, and from 23.2 percent to 25.3 percent for Hispanics.

For Asians, the poverty rate of 12.5 percent was not statistically different from the previous year.

Zeroing in on the recession, the report shows that the poverty rate increased 1.9 percentage points and the number of people in poverty increased 6.3 million between 2007 and 2009.

Further highlighting the ravages of the economic downturn, the report shows how people with jobs have been affected.

Among all workers 16 and older, the poverty rate increased from 6.4 percent in 2008 to 6.9 percent in 2009.

It could have been worse, experts said. The Census Bureau calculated that unemployment benefits alone kept 3.3 million people out of poverty last year.

"The poverty rate would have risen further . . . had it not been for unemployment compensation extensions and other key provision of the 2009 American Recovery Act that have helped middle-class and low-income families stay afloat," Mark Price, labor economist for the Keystone Research Center, said in a statement released Thursday. The center does independent economic analysis.

In Pennsylvania, the poverty rate was virtually unchanged, going from 10.8 percent in 2006-07 to 11.0 percent in 2008-09, the report shows.

In New Jersey, the rate climbed from 8.7 percent in 2006-07 to 9.3 percent in 2008-09.

In Philadelphia, the poverty rate remains around 25 percent, local experts said.

The number of children here living in poverty is close to 33 percent, according to Mariana Chilton, a professor in the Drexel University School of Public Health.

"What is the threshold over which we will stop tolerating this?" Chilton asked. "I'm hoping this report seriously ignites people to take on poverty head-on."

When we look to the future, said analyst David Seith of the Center for Law and Social Policy, we must worry about three things: food, shelter, and health care.

"We need to start job-creation programs to help families," he said. "We need more municipal jobs like bus drivers, police, firefighters.

The figures that were calculated in the report are not from the U.S. Census count, most recently taken this year. They are part of a sample survey known as the Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement.

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