Living in Poverty, Census Study Shows
by Chris Levister
New America Media (November 14, 2011)
Here’s a mind numbing number to ponder: 16 percent. That’s the rate of Americans living in poverty, according to an alternate way of measuring the problem, released by the U.S. Census Bureau Monday. The official poverty level is nearly 1 percentage point lower. The much anticipated economic data show more Hispanics, elderly and working-age poor have fallen into poverty.
For the first time, the share of Hispanics living in poverty surpassed that of African-Americans based on new U.S. Census data.
For the first time, the share of Hispanics living in poverty surpassed that of African-Americans based on the new measure, reflecting in part the lower participation of immigrants and non-English speakers in government aid programs such as housing and food stamps. The report shows children and residents living in more rural areas as well as the Midwest and South also fared bet ter, due to lower costs of living.
The 2009 census estimates show that of the nearly 50 million Latinos in the country, 28.2 percent are living below the poverty threshold compared with 23.4% for black people. That’s 742,000 more than the official poverty count of 13,346,000 poor Hispanics.
Under this new analysis known as the “Supplemental Poverty Measure”, a record number of Americans – 49.1 million – are poor, based on the new census measure that for the first time takes into account rising medical costs and other expenses.
Broken down by group, Americans 65 or older sustained the largest increases in poverty under the revised formula – nearly doubling the 15.9 percent, or 1 in 6 – because of medical expenses that are not accounted for in the official rate. Those include rising Medicare premiums, deductibles and expenses for prescript ion drugs.
But the worry now is that the downturn – which will end eventually – will have long-lasting effects on families who lose jobs, become worse off and can’t recover.”
Traditional black inner-city ghettos are thinning out and changing, drawing in impoverished Hispanic people, who have low-wage jobs or are unemployed. Neighborhoods with poverty rates of at least 40% are stretching over broader areas, increasing in suburbs at twice the rate of cities.
After declining during the 1990s economic boom, the proportion of poor people in large metropolitan areas who lived in high-poverty neighborhoods jumped from 11.2% in 2000 to 15.1% last year, according to a Brookings Institution analysis. Extreme poverty today continues to be prevalent in the industrial Midwest, including Michigan cities Detroit and Grand Rapids, and Akron, Ohio, because of a renewed decline in manufacturing. But the biggest growth in high poverty areas is occurring in newer Sun Belt metro areas such as Las Vegas, Riverside, California, and Cape Coral, Florida, after the plummeting housing market wiped out home values and dried up construction jobs.
Elizabeth Kneebone, a senior research associate at Brookings, described a demographic shift in people living in high-poverty neighborhoods, which have less access to good schools, hospitals and government services. As concentrated poverty spreads to new areas, including suburbs, the residents are now more likely to be white, native-born and high school or college graduates – not the conventional image of highschool dropouts or single mothers in inner-city ghettos.
The more recent broader migration of the US population, including working- and middle-class blacks, to the South and to suburbs helps explain some of the shifts in poverty.
A study by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that the population of 133 historically black ghettos had dropped 36% since 1970, as the US black population growth slowed and many blacks moved to new areas. The newest residents in these ghettos are now more likely to be Hispanic, who have more than tripled their share in the neighborhoods, to 21%.
Just over 7% of the 39 million African-Americans nationwide now live in traditional ghettos, down from 33% in 1970.
“As extreme-poverty neighborhoods emerge in more places, that is shifting the general makeup of those populations,” said Kneebone, the lead author of the Brookings analysis.
The report makes that long believed argument that the official poverty levels for a family of four, set in the 1960s, no long apply. The current threshold does not consider, among other factors, government policies like food stamps and payroll taxes, rises in cost of living and changes in medical costs, not to mention transportation to work and which state a person lives.
“We think it’s a measure people should look at but it’s still a work in progress,” says Census Bureau economist Kathleen Short. She says policymakers can glean valuable information from it, like, are food stamps working? Short says today’s data shows the poverty rate would jump 1.7 percent without that government program.
“So food stamps have been an effective way to pull people across the poverty line,” said Short. Poverty rates are highest for families headed by single women, particularly if they are black or Hispanic. In 2010, 31.6 percent of households headed by single women were poor, while 15.8 percent of households headed by single men and 6.2 percent of married- couple households lived in poverty.
But living above that line, argue social workers, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not struggling to meet basic needs. Many of the working poor are simply making hard choices like whether to pay for medicine or gas for the car. Or they’re doing without what most of us take for granted.
Riverside County’s Hispanic population surged 60 percent between 2000 and 2009, and San Bernardino County’s rose 47 percent. Los Angeles County had only a 10 percent increase — although because it has a much larger population, it added more Hispanic residents than any county in the nation, according to research from the Washington, D.C. -based Brookings Institution.
Research shows the Inland suburbs are home to a third of the nation’s poor. Many people moved to the Inland Empire for a more affordable lifestyle. But poverty rates in suburban cities, like Riverside, are actually growing faster than in bigger cities like Los Angeles.
Companion research, also released by Brookings, suggests that the social safety net in such fast-growing suburban areas is dangerously thin, compounding economic hardships.