The level of "deep poverty" has hit record highs in the United States, according to new data.
Increasing numbers of Americans have fallen into poverty, including a record number who now live in “deep poverty” — living below half of the federal poverty line, according to numbers released by the Census Bureau. The level of poverty in the United States could rise even further, which puts pressure on the so-called congressional “supercommittee” tasked with federal deficit reduction, experts say.
Nearly 46.2 million Americans now live in poverty, an increase of 2.6 million people since 2009 and the highest figures on record. The poverty rate for children under 18 increased to 22 percent (16.4 million children) in 2010. Among children under 5, the poverty rate increased to 25.9 percent (5,5 million children).
Both the number and percentage of people living in “deep poverty” hit record highs, with these data going back to 1975. Some 20.5 million Americans had cash incomes below half of the poverty line (below $11,157 for a family of four, and below $5,672 for a non-elderly person living alone) last year.
Median household income fell 2.3 percent, or $1,154, in 2010, after adjusting for inflation, and those at the bottom of the income scale have lost far more ground than those at the top. Since median income hit its peak in 1999, income (adjusted for inflation) has fallen 12.1 percent for those at the 10th income percentile but only 1.5 percent for those at the 90th percentile. The income gap between those at the 10th and 90th percentile was the highest on record. These data go back to 1967.
“Low-income working families did not create the economic situation that our nation is in, but they tend to be the first hurt and the last to recover during a recession,” said Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, a Christian relief organization. “These new poverty figures indicate that many Americans are still suffering.”
These grim figures come in the midst of an emerging debate about the appropriate role of government not only in spurring economic growth but also in addressing hardship, according to Robert Greenstein, president of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, an independent Washington think tank.
“Federal policymakers will have to decide soon whether to extend certain federal initiatives that were designed both to promote growth and to ease poverty and hardship during the economic downturn, such as extended unemployment insurance benefits,” he says.
Of particular note, Congress could make deep cuts in basic low-income assistance as part of its efforts to reduce long-term deficits, such as through a plan that the new Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction — the so-called bipartisan “supercommittee” — is supposed to craft by Thanksgiving. The supercommittee, created as part of the recent federal budget deal is tasked with identifying ways to reduce the federal budget deficit by an additional $1.5 trillion over the next decade.
The question is whether that supercommittee adheres to a key principle upheld by previous deficit-reduction plans: “that deficit reduction should be designed so that it does not increase poverty and should therefore shield low-income assistance programs from cuts — or whether the Joint Committee and Congress instead impose significant cuts in programs for those at the bottom of the income ladder,” Greenstein says.
It is important that the needs of vulnerable people remain front and center as the supercommittee begins work on reducing the nation’s deficit, says Beckmann.
“At a time when hunger and poverty are at record highs, we must create a circle of protection
around programs that support vulnerable people—not cut those programs. We urge lawmakers to put every possibility on the table as they work toward balancing the budget,” he says.
Scott Nance is the editor and publisher of the news site The Washington Current. He has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.