Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Severe Poverty Hiding Behind the Brighter Headlines

By Carol Spruill

The Census Bureau recently announced the good news that the official poverty rate in 2007 was "not statistically different" from 2006.

But upon digging deeper into the Census Bureau’s full 71-page report the “not statistically different” poverty rate was an overall national increase from 12.3 percent to 12.5 percent. This meant that the number of additional people living on incomes below the poverty line in this country had increased in one year by over 800,000.

In addition, the increase in real income and the decline in the number of families without health insurance were misleading. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports, both statistics compare poorly to 2001. Despite six years of economic growth, the income increases have gone disproportionately to the wealthy. The number of people without health insurance did decline from 15.8 percent in 2006 to 15.3 percent after at least seven years of increases. However, this success in 2007 was due mostly to states expanding their child health insurance programs, a largesse that may be eroding in tough economic times. Meanwhile, the percentage of those with employer-sponsored health insurance continued to decline. Employer-based health insurance coverage was 61.3 percent in 2002 and has dropped to 59.3 percent in 2007.

Year after year, most of the headlines on poverty focus on the overall rate. The public is concerned, but only a little, when we read that 12.5 percent are in poverty, even though that is more than one out of 10 people and the poverty line itself is widely acknowledged to be inadequate and outdated. Yet subcategories of the poor yield an even more disturbing picture.

In 2007, the percentage of children under 18 in poverty was 18 percent, up from 17.4 percent the year before. The percentage of children under 6 living in poverty grew from 20 percent in 2006 to a "not statistically different" 20.8 percent in 2007. This means that one out of every five preschool children lives in poverty. Most shocking of all is that over half of our nation's families headed by a single-female parent with children under 6 are in poverty. That percentage grew from 52.7 percent in 2006 to 54 percent in 2007. This percentage would be even higher if the Census Bureau combined the statistics on this type of family composition with ethnicity, since African-Americans and Hispanics experience much higher rates of poverty.

Finally, our usual casual look at poverty does not include monitoring the status of the "severely poor." The Census Bureau defines them as those having an income of not more than half of the poverty line. In 2007, 5.2 percent, or 15.6 million people, lived on an income below one-half of the poverty line, which was the same percentage as the year before. The severely poor are a full 41.8 percent, or nearing half, of all who live in poverty. This means that in 2007, when the poverty line for a family of three was $17,170, a severely poor mother and two children were living on less than $8,585.

Solutions to poverty are plentiful. While they need to be tailored for the multiple causes of poverty, some are obvious and generic. We could choose among adequate child-care subsidies so single mothers could earn a living, more subsidized housing, increased earned-income tax credits for the working poor, access to health care, or many more avenues of assisting people to prosperity. But before we can find the will to establish solutions, we have to go beyond the headlines and acknowledge just how many people are so desperately poor.
Spruill is a Senior Lecturing Fellow and Associate Dean for Public Interest and Pro Bono at Duke Law School.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the North Carolina Editorial Forum. 9/08

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