What Is Poverty In America?

October 16, 2011

Mercedes Diane Griffin Forbes, civil rights columnist for the Washington DC Examiner, takes on the Heritage Foundation’s dismissive report on poverty in America.

“No matter how extreme some may think the idea of poverty is,” she writes, “for millions, it is not merely an idea born out of media hype, it is in fact a reality.”

The evidence is surely on her side. But her own idea of poverty seems to me warped by what I guess I’d call a middle-class bias.

She starts from an hypothesis ventured by the head of the Census Bureau’s Poverty Statistics Branch. To wit, the recession-driven jobs crisis may be the single largest factor in the increased poverty rate.

Key figure here: Nearly 1.8 million more poor working-age people had gainful employment for, at most, one week last year.

Griffin Forbes adds some of the dismal figures coming out of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Persistently high unemployment rates — over 9% for all but two months since May 2009.

Near-record rates for those who’ve been actively looking for work for at least 27 weeks — more than 2 million of them so long that they’ve exhausted even the maximum extended unemployment insurance benefits the federal government has been funding.

Disproportionately high unemployment rates for blacks and Hispanics. Even higher rates for teenagers.

And look, says Griffin Forbes, at the results of the Heldrich Center’s latest work trends survey.

These show not only “the sting” of unemployment and underemployment, but lower pay for those who do find jobs. Specifically:

  • More than half of those who found work settled for less pay and nearly a third took a cut in job-related benefits.
  • The median starting salary for new college graduates dropped by 10% between 2006-8 and 2009-10.

So what’s her big takeway?

” Poverty in America … is about the ‘American Dream’ becoming increasingly unattainable for millions, who by all accounts have done everything they were supposed to do to ‘make it.'”

Who are these millions?

“Middle class [families] finding that they can no longer meet their basic needs and relying on credit cards to keep the lights on and pay the rent … the college educated finding that they cannot pay their student loan debt.”

These people are indeed suffering from the impacts of the recession. Also from longer-term economic trends that have dramatically shifted income growth to the wealthiest fraction of Americans.

But they aren’t, to my mind, what poverty in America is.

Poverty has a whole lot more to do with not being able to meet your basic needs at all. Painful tradeoffs between food, rent, health care, clothes for the kids, etc. Or so little money that even tradeoffs are impossible.

It’s about not having the education or the resources to go to college, even with financial aid.

It’s about growing up in communities where the American Dream has long been out of reach for all but a few extraordinarily fortunate individuals.

A pre-recession study for the Center on American Progress found that upward mobility was more a myth than a reality for large numbers of poor children — especially black children.

Nearly 63% of those who were born to families in the bottom fifth of the income scale remained there as adults. The percent was higher than for white children, even when factors like parents’ education levels, working hours and assets were accounted for.

I’m as concerned as Griffin Forbes about hard-working Americans who had a purchase on middle-class life and now find themselves at the brink of homelessness — or worse.

But their plight isn’t, as she claims, a “dirty little secret.” We read about it all the time.

And it certainly isn’t, “in a nutshell,” what poverty in America is.