Millions of People Living Always on the Margin

Nearly 50 years ago, Molly Orshansky, who invented our official poverty measure, noted that when the number of people below the applicable poverty threshold rose, the number just above dropped. And then the reverse happened.

“This reciprocal trend,” she wrote, “suggests that there may be a sizable group in the population living always on the margin — wavering between dire poverty and a level only slightly higher but never really free from the threat of deprivation.”

A recent report from the Census Bureau confirms this insight. Or so it seems.

What we know for sure is that, in 2011-12, virtually the same number of people who were near-poor at the beginning fell into poverty as rose above the Bureau’s near-poverty cut-off, i.e., 125% of the applicable poverty threshold.

Fewer than either remained in the near-poverty group for even this brief period. So many people are indeed on the margin — 14.7 million in 2012. And if past is prologue, almost as many will plunge (or plunge back) into dire poverty as will gain more than brief freedom from the threat of deprivation.

This is only one of the interesting things the report tells us. The other big eye-opener, for me, is that the near-poverty rate doesn’t behave like the poverty rate.

The latter is always considerably higher — 15%, as compared in 4.7% in 2012. But the poverty rate swings up and down as recessions set in and end. The near-poverty rate barely registers the downturns and upturns in our economy.

Here’s another difference. The poverty rate for seniors, according to the official measure, is much lower than the rate for children — 9.1%, as compared to 21.8% in 2012. But the near-poverty rates were statistically the same.

In other ways, the near-poverty rates resemble differences in poverty rates among groups the Census Bureau reports on, but only in a very general way.

For example, in 2012, the near-poverty rate for blacks was higher than the rate for whites — 6.3%, as compared to 4.5%. But the poverty rate gap was more than twice as great — 27.2%, as compared to 12.7%.

Similarly, the near-poverty rate for single-mother families was higher than the rate for married couples — 7.3%, as compared to 2.8%. But again the gap was far wider for their respective poverty rates — 30.9%, as compared to 6.3%.

What this means, of course, is that fewer blacks and single mothers were living on the margin because more were officially poor, which is very poor indeed.

This is also the case for working-age people not in the labor force, including those with severe disabilities. The poverty rate for those neither working nor actively looking for work was 28.4%, while their near-poverty rate was 6.7%.

These are only a few examples of comparative rates, based on the latest published Census figures. The near-poverty rate report also compares rates for 2012 with those for 1966, when Orshansky published her paper.

Overall, the near-poverty rate dropped, though only by 1.6%. And it dropped enough to be statistically significant for virtually every group the report breaks out.

The exceptions related to changes in our labor market. Specifically, the near-poverty rate for adults over 25 with less than a high school diploma or the equivalent was 1.8% higher in 2012.

Rates were also higher for adults in this age group at every education level below a four-year college degree or more. For those with the degree(s), the very low near-poverty rate was effectively the same — 1.2%.

And what about our safety net? Census can’t backtrack to 1966, but it does provide figures for the number of near-poor people who benefited from six major programs — or types of programs — in 1981.

We see significant changes in the number and percent of near-poor people served between the baseline year and 2012 for only four. And only one of them represents a decrease.

In 2012, 9.9% fewer near-poor people received public assistance, i.e., cash benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program* and/or one of the dwindling state general assistance programs.

Near-poor participation in SNAP (the food stamp program) increased by the same percent. But the increase for the Earned Income Tax Credit was larger — 12.5%. And it’s the only safety net program Census reports on that benefited more near-poor than poor people.

The program with the greatest reach of all was the free and reduced-price part of the school lunch program. In 2012, it served 84.6% of near-poor children and a barely higher 88.5% of children in poverty. For the near-poor, this represents a 16.6% increase over 1981.

By and large, I think these changes, as well as the raw participation figures tend to confirm studies indicating that safety net spending has shifted toward people who, for one reason or another, are viewed as deserving — adults who work and those who can’t be expected to.

More conclusively, the report confirms the fragile hold on even a modicum of income security that Professor Mark Rank, among others, has sought to demonstrate — and that Orshansky flagged so long ago.

* TANF hadn’t replaced welfare as we knew it in 1981. So the comparison is to its predecessor.

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