America’s Shameful Poverty Stats

The latest Census Bureau figures on poverty in America, combined with the data on inequality released a week earlier, confirm a shocking new reality. While a sliver of top earners are doing better than they ever have before, for tens of millions of Americans, insecurity—and, for a distressing number, destitution—is the new norm.

The current Population Survey data show that 15 percent of Americans, roughly 46.5 million people, live at or below the government-defined poverty line—which, as most who work with the hungry, the homeless, the uninsured, and the underpaid or unemployed know, is itself an inadequate measure of poverty. By more reasonable measures, poverty in this country is even more pervasive.

The headline one can take away from this is that three years into the recovery from the collapse of 2008, poverty numbers haven’t really gone down. Almost all the additional wealth being generated by a growing economy is going to those who already have the most. Median income has stagnated and, for young people, it is continuing to go down.

But there’s a deeper significance to the numbers: how they compare with the figures from recent decades. The percentage of people in poverty is roughly the same as in 1983, in the middle of the Reagan presidency, as well as in 1993, at the end of twelve years of Reagan/Bush trickle-down economics. A far higher portion of the population lives in poverty than was the case in the mid-1970s, after a decade of investment stemming from Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty; and far more live in poverty today than did at the end of Bill Clinton’s eight years in office—years in which the earned-income tax credit was expanded, unemployment was kept to near-historic lows, and poverty rates fell significantly.