Poverty numbers were just released in a new Census report, and they aren't pretty. They probably also aren't very surprising, given the state of the economy these last few years. The bottom line is, poverty is up.
In fact, it's up for just about everyone, although the Asian ethnic group's poverty rate was largely spared, reports The Washington Post. Every other race saw their poverty rate as a group climb. It's the highest rate of poverty since 1994, but as a country, it's 8.1% lower than in 1959, when government records on American poverty were first kept.
So what does the rise of poverty mean? I'm not sure anyone can make sense of this, frankly, but let's give it a shot.
Translating the numbers. Since we're in the middle of 2010, these latest numbers actually represent what was going on in 2009, so things could be slightly better now -- or slightly worse. As it stands, what we know, is that last year, 14.3% of Americans were considered impoverished. That's one out of every seven Americans, or 43.6 million people.
What is poverty in dollar figures? If you were a single adult in 2009 and made $10,830 or less, you're considered poor. If you were part of a family of four in 2009 and made $22,050 or less, you're also tabbed as someone living in poverty. That should be interesting for the many people, I suspect, who make quite a bit more but still feel poor.
People have less health insurance. Americans with health insurance went from approximately 255 million to less than 254 million. That's the first drop since the government began tracking those numbers in 1987. Part of the problem is that with the rise of unemployment, seven million Americans wound up losing their employer-based health insurance plans.
We're hungrier. "We don't have hunger issues like some nations -- it's nothing like Darfur," says Anthony Butler, executive director of St. John's Bread and Life, Brooklyn's largest soup kitchen program, "but we're seeing a significant amount of people paying their rent instead of buying food."
And that means more people are visiting places like St. John's. Butler says he wasn't surprised by the Census numbers. His own numbers demonstrate how as a nation, we're becoming more hungry. So far, in 2010, St. John's has had a 24% increase in the guests who have come for their services. Most of them -- 85% -- are there for the food pantry.
As for more stark numbers, the folks at Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida recently did a hunger study and sent me its findings. The organization concluded that one in six Americans struggle with hunger each day, and that out of the 37 million Americans being served annually by Feeding America food banks, of which Second Harvest is one of, 14 million of those Americans are children and three million are seniors. Some 76% (that's 10 million Americans) of Feeding America's clients are "food insecure," meaning they often don't know where they'll find their next meal. And 46% of their clients have reported having to choose between paying for utilities and heating fuel -- or food.
More "middle class" people are poorer. OK, that's a logical conclusion. But Butler's perspective seems right on target. He says that they aren't seeing people from Wall Street show up at their food bank. Rather, he says, "It's people who benefited from the Wall Street people's expense accounts. It's the bartenders, the bus boys, the cab drivers and delivery people -- they're the ones who lost their jobs in this recession."
The "cycle of poverty" may be the biggest threat. The cycle of poverty is an economic term that describes how many generations manage to stay impoverished, decade after decade, century after century, unless something manages to throw a wrench in the system that's keeping a family poor. It's something that concerns Julia Campbell, U.S. program coordinator for ChildFund International, which helps poor children around the world, including American kids. "If all you've known is poverty," says Campbell, "it's really hard to come out of that."
Campbell says their organization focuses on helping children come up with solutions for breaking that poverty cycle. "Not that we're saying kids need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps -- they need help with that -- but we do try to equip them so they can change their situation."
And changing for the better is what needs to happen now. After all, Campbell notes that along with overall poverty, child poverty went up as well. If you're a child in America, 20.7% of you are likely to be living in poverty, up from 19% the year before.
Campbell says that the new contingent of children -- as well as adults -- who find themselves poor are at risk now, in the sense that, as she explains, "The longer people are in poverty, the harder it is to come out of that. For newly poor people, it's critical to make sure it doesn't become lasting."
Geoff Williams is a frequent contributor to WalletPop. He is also the co-author of the book Living Well with Bad Credit.
Poverty rate at highest levels since 1994