Poverty, Homelessness, and the 1 Percent

Recently, the U.S. Census published a report showing that almost 50 percent of Americans are either living below or just above the poverty line. According to an Associated Press article picked up by Salon:

The latest census data depict a middle class that’s shrinking as unemployment stays high and the government’s safety net frays. The new numbers follow years of stagnating wages for the middle class that have hurt millions of workers and families.

“Safety net programs such as food stamps and tax credits kept poverty from rising even higher in 2010, but for many low-income families with work-related and medical expenses, they are considered too ‘rich’ to qualify,” said Sheldon Danziger, a University of Michigan public policy professor who specializes in poverty.

“The reality is that prospects for the poor and the near poor are dismal,” he said. “If Congress and the states make further cuts, we can expect the number of poor and low-income families to rise for the next several years.”

As soon as the Census report came out, Robert Rector at The Heritage Foundation disputed its findings:

[Rector] questioned whether some people classified as poor or low-income actually suffer material hardship. He said that while safety-net programs have helped many Americans, they have gone too far. He said some people described as poor live in decent-size homes, drive cars and own wide-screen TVs.

“There’s no doubt the recession has thrown a lot of people out of work and incomes have fallen,” Rector said. “As we come out of recession, it will be important that these programs promote self-sufficiency rather than dependence and encourage people to look for work.”

The AP report was also challenged on the basis that the figures were inflated. Salon‘s Justin Elliott effectively debunks that charge (emphasis in internal quote is in the original):

Sharon Bernstein, a reporter at NBC’s Los Angeles affiliate, disputed the figures used by the AP. In a story titled “News stories saying 50 percent of Americans are low-income or in poverty may be wrong, Census analysts in LA said,” she wrote of the widely picked-up figures:

But while poverty in the United States is certainly an important issue, those figures appear to be wrong, perhaps based on a misunderstanding of the data by journalists who did not go back to the source to doublecheck their figures, said analysts at the U.S. Census Bureau district office in Los Angeles.

NBCLA worked with three data analysts at the Census Bureau to check the data, and the real figures do indeed appear to be quite different.

According to the latest Census data, about 49.9 million Americans – about 13.8 percent – are living below the poverty line. Another 53.8 million – about 18 percent – are considered low income because they earn less than twice the poverty level.

That’s a total of 31.8 percent, far lower than the dramatic figure of 50 percent that was included in more than 300 online news reports, and multiple TV news broadcasts, including Thursday’s “Today in LA.”

That is a wide gap and those are strong charges, so I decided to look into what happened here. In short, the AP is standing by its story, and the census is supporting the AP on the numbers. The only thing that’s in real dispute is the definition of “low income.”

More details at the article link.

That 48 percent of impoverished and low-income Americans includes millions of children. According to a study released on Monday by the National Center on Family Homelessness and reported by Agence France Presse, “1.6 million children in the United States — one in 45 kids — were homeless last year, living in shelters, cars, abandoned buildings and parks. …”

In this context, the vast amount of power wielded by the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans takes on even more importance. Jamelle Bouie has a very interesting article about that in The Nation.

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