Poverty by the Numbers: the 2010 Census Data in Review

Blog Post
Sept. 20, 2011

The release of the 2010 U.S. Census data about poverty spawned a flurry of writing, thinking, and, of course, tweeting about the causes, status of, and solutions to widespread poverty in the U.S. This post is a smattering of analysis of the poverty numbers from the past week with our reactions and links to past work on the topics being discussed. Other organizations have compiled great, comprehensive lists of news and publications on the data release so this post chimes in and builds on that conversation.

The U.S. Census report “Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2010” (available here as a pdf) is the data-heavy report behind the publications listed below. The accompanying press release has a summary of key statistics that the Census Bureau chose to emphasize, such as an analysis of the impact of the 2007 to 2009 recession on the 2010 numbers. The Asset Building Program’s press release from last week is available here.

Graphic Facts: 2010 Census Data in Charts, Lists, and Tables

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the National Women’s Law Center compiled graphs that summarize the data and highlight the inequality behind the numbers. The Center for American Progress has this digestible list of ten particularly striking findings from the newest data. Among other things, the stats focus on health insurance coverage, income inequality, racial disparities, and programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit which help lift low-income families out of poverty.

The Stories Behind the Numbers

Behind the Poverty Statistics: Real Lives, Real Pain” moves beyond the statistics to report on the lived experiences of people who were in poverty during 2010. The stories paint a clearer picture of what poverty means in day-to-day life than the numbers do alone.

Measuring Poverty:

Depending on who you ask, existing measures of poverty may inflate or deflate the problem. “Our Nation’s Poor Live Like Kings” summarizes some of the latest pieces out there that suggest poverty is falsely inflated. As we’ve written about previously, this line of reasoning doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. In “New Poverty Rate Only Tells Half the Story: Twice the Number of Americans Struggling to Get By,” Brandon Roberts and David Altstadt from the Working Poor Families Project suggest that current measures do not tell the full story of poverty. Instead, they use 200% of the federal poverty level as a more realistic measure of the number of Americans unable to meet their basic needs. Using this definition, they find that 33.9% or 103.6 million people are struggling nationwide. Measuring poverty is indeed complicated and official measures may indeed need some revision, but it remains an important exercise that helps solutions be more targeted and promotes accountability.

Young Families:

Articles from the New York Times and Slate highlight the growing disparity between young and old: families under age 30 experience a poverty rate seven times that of elderly households. The article attributes this trend to shifts in the economy that make it more challenging for those without a high school diploma to earn a living, as well as changes to assistance programs that make it harder for families to receive help.

Child Poverty:

Despite multiple federal programs attempting to bring children (and hopefully their parents) out of poverty, the number of children growing up in poverty is a particularly depressing statistic. “To Grow the Economy We Must Pay Attention to Child Poverty” demands increased attention to children and pointedly notes how shortsighted it is to ignore the needs of the children who will be tomorrow's adults. A childhood in poverty has a lifelong impact.

The Shrinking Middle Class:

As the number of people living in poverty rises, the middle class is vanishing, as the “The Hourglass Economy” discusses. Economic mobility is a concept Americans cling to even in the face of mounting evidence that is harder now to advance up the income ladder than at many points in the past. But comparisons of mean household income across income quintiles shows that lower and middle income brackets are losing out, while the highest earners have been mostly unscathed.

Women in Poverty:

Women experience poverty at a disproportionate rate for a variety of reasons, including employment opportunities, child care responsibilities, and a persistent wage gap. National Women’s Law Center analysis of the poverty analysis incorporates an important reflection on the role gender plays on poverty statistics.

A Savings-Based Anti-Poverty Agenda

These data are stark evidence of system-wide failures. Moving forward, an anti-poverty agenda should incorporate ideas from the savings and asset building field to guard against future uncertainty. This radio segment features Rachel Black from the Asset Building program discussing the way unemployment and underemployment keep low-income people in a cycle of poverty and how savings can increase the resiliency of families in times of a financial emergency, recession or otherwise.

Additionally, solutions addressing poverty will flounder if they do not take the state of racial inequality in the U.S. NPR recently ran two segments about the racial wealth gap, featuring possible solutions, including some we have advocated for in the past.

Juan Williams’ opinion piece, “Poverty met with silence,” expresses dismay and frustration at the lack of congressional attention both to poverty and to programs that have shown promise at reducing the scope and severity of poverty.  He makes mention of a number of asset building strategies (many of which we have written about in the 2011 Assets Agenda) including the Earned Income Tax Credit, Individual Development Accounts, and SEED (Savings for Education, Entrepreneurship and Down Payment program). Poverty in the U.S. is not going to disappear on its own and these conversations are an important strategy to bring people together to think about sustainable long-term changes.