Leading Poverty Experts Assess New Census Data

U.S. Census data released today show that the burden of the Great Recession has fallen mostly on those at the bottom. The Census reveals that the US in 2009 had the largest number of Americans living in poverty in the 51 years that poverty has been measured, 43.6 million people, and the highest poverty rate, 14.3 percent since 1998. Millions more would have been in poverty without the cash safety net — the expansion of unemployment insurance alone kept 3.3 million out of poverty. “This isn’t just about the people who are officially defined as ‘poor.’ It’s another sign of the deepening economic misery that is keeping the economy from recovering,” says best-selling author Barbara Ehrenreich.

Ehrenreich — along with 10 of the nation’s leading experts on poverty — co-authored a national study, Battered by the Storm: How the Safety Net is Failing Americans and How to Fix It, which was released last November. The prescient study predicted that the poverty numbers would continue to rise and offered a bold, comprehensive plan to combat poverty and unemployment. Peter Edelman, Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center, was among the report’s authors. “Sad to say, our nation’s response to the recession, while significant in absolute terms, has fallen far short of closing the chasm of joblessness and lost family income,” he says. “Had they been enacted, the proposals we made nine months ago would be narrowing the gap now.”

Among the proposals the experts put forward were the creation of a $40 billion temporary public jobs program to create one million new jobs; new policies to effectively address the housing foreclosure crisis; $270 billion to cover state and local deficits that could save the jobs of millions of workers now threatened by unprecedented state budget deficits; and vital new funding for critical safety net programs such as Unemployment Compensation and TANF.

“First and foremost we continue to need jobs — and the best way to achieve that is through bold action at the federal level to invest in our people and our country. Steps that must be taken include direct local job creation as would occur by enactment of the Local Jobs for America Act to create one million jobs,” said Steve Savner, Director of Public Policy at the Center for Community Change.

Diana Pearce, Director of the Center for Women’s Welfare at the University of Washington School of Social Work, believes that the new Census data underestimate poverty three ways: It excludes the homeless altogether; it excludes people who are “doubled-up” and living with other family members. And most importantly, she points out, “Because the poverty thresholds are way too low, especially in high cost areas, many families struggling and failing to meet their own basic needs are not counted as poor.” Pearce says that because the current thresholds do not take into account new and increased costs such as taxes, child care and health care, nor are they geographically varied, they miss the poverty faced by millions of families.

Many of those newly classified as living below the poverty line are likely workers without high school diplomas, says Dean Baker, Co-Director, Center for Economic and Policy Research: “Workers in these categories tend to be closer to the poverty line, since they have the lowest paying jobs. With a much higher share of these workers experiencing bouts of unemployment than the workforce as a whole, many would be pushed below the poverty line.”

Not all sectors of society have been affected equally by the Great Recession. Contrary to popular impressions, the new data show the disproportionate impact of the nation’s economic crisis on people of color and single mothers, rather than the middle class. Pointing out that the poverty rate increased for all ethnic groups except Asians in the past year, Dedrick Muhammad, Senior Organizer and Research Associate of the Inequality and the Common Good Program at the Institute for Policy Studies, said, “It is becoming more and more clear how the Great Recession continues to turn back the modest progress made in advancing racial equity over the last few decades.”

Whether included in the new data or not, the nation’s safety net has proven to not be large enough or strong enough to help all those in need. Timothy Casey, Senior Staff Attorney at Legal Momentum, the Women’s Legal Defense and Education Fund, points out the urgency for Congress to take action immediately. “The increase in the poverty rate for single mother families to 38.5%, the highest since 1998, underscoring the urgent need for Congress to extend and expand the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Emergency Fund which is set to expire on September 30,” says Casey. “States have used the TANF emergency fund to provide basic assistance, emergency aid, and subsidized jobs to the poor and unemployed. The need for the fund continues, as most poor families are still not receiving any aid from TANF and even fewer poor families will be aided if the fund expires.”

Karen Dolan, Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, urges policy-makers to read the recommendations in Battered by the Storm. “This new data reveals our nation’s inability to respond to the profound needs of a growing number of Americans falling precipitously through a badly tattered safety net. We must act quickly to stop the devastation that will affect generations to come. “

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