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U.S. Census: Poverty strikes one in seven

Caitlin Yoshiko Buysse | 9/21/2010, 7:48 p.m.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported last week that 43.6 million Americans — or 14.3 percent of the population — live on less than $22,128 per year.

According to its latest data, the number of poor is the same as the combined populations of Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont.

 This is the highest number of people living in poverty in the United States since 1959, when the federal government began the measurement.

The figures also represent a marked increase since 2008. Last year, 6.3 million more people lived in poverty than in the previous year, including 2.1 million more children.  

Equally startling is that the majority of impoverished families do not live anywhere close to the poverty line. The average income deficit, the difference between income and the poverty threshold, is $9,042, which means the average poor family lives on just $13,086 per year.

The report also revealed that racial minorities were the hardest hit by economic difficulties. The African American poverty rate is 25.8 percent — nearly twice the national level. And Hispanics saw the biggest jump from the past year, with poverty rates up 2.1 percent since 2008.

 Income figures also show vast racial disparities. Black median household income is the lowest of all racial groups in the U.S., at $32,584. Hispanics stand just above this at $38,039. Whites, however, make $54,461 — over $20,000 more than blacks.

Asians top the charts at $65,469. The median household income for all races is $49,777. While incomes of each group have fluctuated over the past four decades, the earning statistics have remained the same, with blacks and Hispanics below the national median, and whites and Asians above.

“It’s scary,” said John Drew, president and CEO of Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD), a social services organization for low-income residents. Based on his work on the ground, Drew agrees that poverty and unemployment are much worse than in previous decades — but also says that Census statistics “don’t capture the real depth of the struggle we’re in.”

“It’s always an undercount,” said Chris Sieber, director of planning at ABCD.

 Drew explained that national data exclude the many people who struggle to live above the poverty line, and Sieber added that the data cannot catch up to the huge number of people coming off unemployment benefits each week.

 In the past year, “we have seen a steep increase in the number of people who have come to us,” said Drew, who estimated a 20-25 percent rise from the usual 80,000 people per year. ABCD received stimulus finding from the Obama administration, allowing the organization to expand programming and find jobs for the unemployed. But this funding expires at the end of the month.

According to data from the Boston Public Health Commission, poverty in Boston significantly surpasses national rates — in 2008, one in five, or 19 percent, Bostonians lived below the poverty line, and nearly 25 percent of children lived in poor households. The following year, 7,529 Bostonians were homeless, up about 1,700 people from the past decade. Children accounted for 31 percent of the homeless.