Poverty in America

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 46.2 million Americans (15.1%) are living in poverty, the largest number since the U.S. government began calculating poverty figures in 1959. The U.S. poverty rate is the third worst among the developed nations tracked by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). More than 1 in 5 children under age 18 and 1 in 6 Americans is living under the federal poverty line.

As the number of available jobs shrinks and the number of low-paying or part-time jobs with no benefits increases, the number of people unemployed or under-employed is rising. Low-wage jobs do not cover basic necessities such as food, shelter, clothing, transportation, and health care. Fueling this situation, health care costs are rising and crippling families. Currently, nearly 1 in 6 Americans has no health insurance (49.9 million), nearly 10% of whom (7.3 million) are children. Between 2009 and 2010, the poverty rate among seniors rose from 9% to 15.9% due to medical expenses. More than 45% of Americans are doubling-up, living with their parents or friends because they have incomes below the poverty level.

Rising inflation, falling job rates, unlivable wages, rising health care expenses and mounting debts are leading the middle- and lower- classes into poverty.

Where is poverty worst?
The South has been hit hardest by current economic conditions, with 18.8 million people living in poverty in 2010, 1.2 million more than in 2009. Next worst off was the West, with 10.9 million people living below the poverty line. The Northeast and the Midwest were doing relatively better, with 6.92 million and 9.49 million people, respectively, slipping or remaining under the poverty line. Twenty-two states had poverty rates greater than the national rate of 15.1% in 2010. Mississippi was the worst off, with almost one-quarter of its population (22.4%) living in poverty, followed by New Mexico, Kentucky, and Alabama where 1 in every 5 individuals is stricken by poverty. Among the 28 states that had poverty rates lower than the national rate, New Hampshire ranked the best (8.3%), followed by Alaska and Maryland (9.9%), Connecticut (10.1%), New Jersey (10.3%), and Hawaii (10.7%). Illinois wasn’t spared by the recession. It had 17.1 million (13.8%) individuals living below the federal poverty line — the 28th worst state in the nation.



Where is child poverty worst?
One of the worst victims of poverty is children. Poverty among children rose from 20.7% in 2009 to 21.2% in 2010, with more than 1 in 5 kids under age 18 living in poverty, and 1 out of every 4 receiving food stamps. One-third of Mississippi’s children were living in poverty in 2010, the worst rate in the nation. In New Mexico, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, the Carolinas, Texas, Tennessee, and West Virginia one-fourth of the children were in poverty. New Hampshire, Connecticut, Alaska, Maryland, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Wyoming, New Jersey, and Virginia’s child poverty rates were below the national rate of 15.1%. In Illinois, 1 out every 5 children was living in poverty. In Illinois 19.4% are below federal poverty line and 8.6% were living in extreme poverty.

Where is seniors’ poverty worst?
With nest eggs disappearing, equity on homes taking a nose dive, and medical expenses rising, the number of seniors slipping into poverty is soaring. The main expense for seniors is out-of-pocket medical costs. Between 2009 and 2010, the poverty rate among seniors rose from 9% to 15.9% due to medical expenses. The Dakotas, New Mexico, Mississippi, Louisiana, Kentucky, New York, Texas, Georgia, Alabama, and Arkansas have the worst rates where at least 1 in 10 seniors were living in poverty. Alaska had the smallest percentage of impoverished seniors, followed by Utah, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Iowa, Hawaii, Indiana, Vermont, Wyoming, Washington, and Montana. When compared to other age groups, Illinois seniors are doing much better, with only 8.4% living below federal poverty levels.

Comparing poverty rates across age groups – children, seniors, and adults between the ages of 19 and 64, overall children were affected the most and seniors the least. The poverty rates were 21.2% for children under age 18, 14.2% for those aged 18 to 64,  and 9% for those 65 years and older.

How do race and ethnicity affect poverty?

Among racial and ethnic groups, poverty varies considerably. The poverty rate overall for whites and Asians was 12.5%, for blacks it was 27.1%, for Hispanics it was 24.8%, for Native Americans it was 28.4%, and for Pacific Islanders it was 18.8% in 2010.

Only 6 states reported white poverty rates as much as 3% higher than the national rate. For whites, New Mexico ranked worst, followed by West Virginia, Kentucky, Texas, Arizona, Arkansas, Tennessee, Idaho, Oregon, California, and Mississippi. Maryland, Alaska, Connecticut, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Virginia, Delaware, Massachusetts, and Minnesota had the lowest percentage of whites in poverty. Whites in Illinois were also doing well, with only 9.9% living in poverty. The highest poverty rate seen for whites in the worst performing state (New Mexico) was 17.8% and the lowest rate was 6.8% (Alaska and Maryland).

Historically blacks have had higher rates of poverty compared to the other major minorities. One in every 4 blacks was in poverty in 36 states and 1 in 3 blacks was living below the poverty line in 23 states. Only Alaska and Hawaii had black poverty rates below the national average. Blacks in Maine, Iowa, Oregon, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, Rhode Island, and Mississippi had the worst poverty rates. Among blacks in Illinois, nearly 1 in 3 were living in poverty.

Latinos also suffer from higher rates of poverty. In 32 states, at least 1 in 4 Latinos was in poverty, and in most of the Southern states and some of the Northeastern states, 1 in 3 Latinos had an income under the federal poverty line. Only Alaska, Maryland, and Virginia had rates below the national poverty line. In Illinois, 1 in 5 Latinos was in poverty — a rate 10% below that of blacks.

Asians are generally associated with lower rates of poverty. Thirty-four states were below the national rate and 14 had higher rates. In 7 states, 1 of every 5 Asians was living in poverty. Asians in the Northeastern region had rates as much as 9% below the national rate. In Illinois, 1 in 9 Asians lived below the poverty line. Poverty rates for Illinois Asians are 2% higher than whites, 19% lower than blacks, and 8% lower than Latinos.

The composition of poverty in America varies by age, race, and region. Among the poverty-stricken Americans, children, blacks, Latinos and the Southern region have been affected most. With foreclosure crisis still continuing, job growth stagnant and healthcare costs rising, these already vulnerable populations may slip into extreme poverty as the already-shrinking middle class shrinks still further.

Quick Facts

  • 46.2 million (15.1%) Americans lived in poverty in 2010
  • 9.2 million (11.7%) American families lived in poverty in 2010
  • 1in 6 Americans in poverty in 2010 was being served by at least one government anti-poverty program
  • More than 1 in 5 children under age 18 was living in poverty — up 1.3% from the year before
  • Poverty rates among seniors rose nearly 7%, from 9% in 2009 to 15.9% in 2010 because of medical expenses
  • Poverty rates among working adults stayed relatively the same, increasing from 15.1% to 15.2% in 2010
  • The poverty rate in 2010 for whites and Asians was 12.5%, for blacks was 27.1%, for Hispanics was 24.8%, for Native Americans was 28.4%, and for Pacific Islanders was 18.8%
  • The poverty rate in 2010 for children under age 18 was 21.6%, 14.2% for adults aged 18 to 64, and 9% for seniors age 65 and older
  • 2010 saw the largest single year increase in the U.S. poverty rate since the U.S. government began calculating poverty figures in 1959
  • 2.5 million Americans had wages below the prevailing federal minimum hourly wage of $7.25 in 2010
  • More than 45% of Americans doubling-up and living with their parents had incomes below the poverty level
  • The South has been hit hardest by the recession with 18.8 million people living in poverty, up from 17.6 million in 2009
  • The U.S. poverty rate is now the third worst among the developed nations tracked by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)

Source: businessinsider.com, U.S. Census

What is the poverty line?
Each year, the federal government computes the poverty threshold for individuals and households by taking into account basic human needs such as food, shelter, clothing, transportation, and health care based on income, family size, age, and marital status. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2010, a family of four (two adults and two children) earning less than $21,834 per year or an individual making less than $11,139 per annum was living below the poverty line. Click here for more information on poverty thresholds.

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Author: Nandhini Gulasingam

Nandhini Gulasingam is a Senior Analyst for IT Solutions at the Social Science Research Center (SSRC) where she manages GIS, database, web development projects for the SSRC and is developing data visualization techniques for use in the social and behavioral sciences. She is also an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Geography where she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

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