Well, the crystal ball gazers blew it. The Census Bureau just reported that the poverty rate didn’t rise last year. The official 15% rate isn’t statistically different from the 2010 rate, it says.
This is surely good news. It nevertheless means that more than 46.2 million people were so poor as to fall below the Bureau’s very low poverty thresholds.
And well over 20.3 million — 6.6% — were so extremely poor as to fall below 50% of the applicable threshold. This is what’s commonly referred to as severe poverty.
What also hasn’t changed is the distribution of poverty across different age and race/ethnicity groups. For example, in 2011:
- The child poverty rate was 21.9% — not statistically different from the rate in 2010.
- The poverty rate for seniors was 8.7% — again, virtually the same as the 2010 rate.
- The black poverty rate was nearly triple the poverty rate for whites — 27.6%, as compared to 9.8%.
- The poverty rate for Hispanics was 25.3%.
Poverty rates among family types also replicate a familiar pattern. The percent of married couples who were officially poor was 6.2%, while the rate for single-woman households was five times higher — 31.2%.
Severe poverty rates were, of course, lower. But they mirror the same disparities. For example:
- Nearly 1 in 10 of America’s children — 9.8% — lived in severe poverty last year.
- The severe poverty rate for blacks was 12.8% and for Hispanics, 10.5%.
- By contrast, severe poverty afflicted 4.4% of whites and only 2.3% of seniors of all racial/ethnic groups combined.
What we’re to make of all this I’m really not sure. We’ll undoubtedly have many analyses in days to come.
In the interim, we can ferret out of the Census report a couple of policy-relevant messages, based on examples it provides of what the statistically adept can find out by using its online tool.
One we might guess from the relatively low senior poverty rate. Without Social Security benefits, about five times as many elderly people would have been counted as poor.
This is surely a testimony to one of our oldest anti-poverty programs — and a warning of what could happen if some of the “reforms” that are being widely promoted became law.
An additional 2.3 million people were lifted above the poverty threshold by unemployment insurance benefits.
A more imminent danger here because more than 2 million jobless workers will lose these benefits in January if Congress doesn’t extend the only still operative federally-funded UI program.
Millions more will have, at most, 26 weeks of benefits — this at a time when 40% of those actively looking for work have been unemployed for longer.
So here’s a case where our federal policymakers could keep what are still really depressing poverty numbers from getting worse.
Whether they will or not depends on what voters decide in November.