The data on the poor in this country announced Tuesday by the Census Bureau was not good, and due to measures already taken by Congress and those likely to come, the outlook doesn’t provide much reason for hope. Stephanie Mencimer at Mother Jones gives some of the “lowlights”:
The overall poverty rate has reached a record high and the number of people living in deep poverty—that is, below 50 percent of the poverty level, or $11,000 for a family of four—is the highest it’s been since 1975. Experts are predicting that things are only going to get worse in the years to come….
Median income has sunk lower than it was almost 15 years ago. The number of people living without health insurance is up slightly. The number of kids under the age of six living in extreme poverty is up to nearly 12 percent. The recession has been especially hard on women and people of color. The extreme poverty rate for women is more than 6 percent, the highest recorded in 22 years, and the poverty rate for black women is up a percentage point from 2009, to more than 25 percent.
In These Times’ David Moberg continues:
But it is especially painful because it follows what many are calling a “lost decade” for the majority of Americans. The median household income peaked in 1999 at $53,252, then dropped in most of the following years, never recovering its pre-recession high. Likewise, even during the recovery of the Bush years, poverty levels crept upwards. The big exception was the very rich, who captured most of the new income generated as productivity of the economy rose and inequality continued to grow.
All this while we learn, as associate editor Margret Aldrich wrote on her Sweet Pursuit blog last week, “Economic equality equals happiness. So suggests a new study to be published in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science. In order for Americans to be truly blissed out, it finds, we need to close the gap between our wealthiest and poorest citizens.”
Unfortunately we see that’s not happening, leaving The Take Away this morning to ask the discouraging question, “Does America Care About Its Poor?” Though The Take Away left it up to listeners, the answer seems to be, for the most part, no. That said, Moberg at In These Times does point out that “bad as these numbers are, they would have been much worse if many government programs and policies had not been in place,” including unemployment insurance, The Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps, and the Obama administration’s stimulus programs. (I don’t know how many times economists and others have to point out that the only problem with Obama’s stimulus was that is simply wasn’t big enough before it will be okay to use the word “stimulus” again. But I digress.) Still, “welfare” programs aren’t what they used to be. “Evidence suggests,” writes Jarret Murphy in City Limits, “that today’s needy families are, in large measure, not getting the help to which they are legally entitled. In 1996, for every 100 families that were in poverty, 79 were on welfare. In 2010, the figure was 28, according to the CBPP [Center on Budget and Policy Priorities].” LaDonna Pavetti, the vice president for family income support policy at the CBPP is quoted as saying, “It’s just truly people are not being served. And it’s not because we’ve had this incredible decline in poverty.” Point proven by the recent Census data.
But now the conversation in Washington is switching back to jobs, so everything should be just fine, right? We’ve gotten our priorities straight, so we can figure out how to fix the problem. Not so fast. Writing about the declining middle class in The Atlantic, Don Peck writes that the jobs that are coming down the pike will be low-skill, low-wage jobs, jobs like the ones highlighted a decade ago by Barbara Ehrenreich in Nickel and Dimed and now touted (though not in so many words) by the possible Republican presidential candidate from Texas. In short, jobs that won’t bring people up out of poverty and back into any sort of middle class. “[T]he overall pattern of change in the U.S. labor market suggests,” Peck writes,
that in the next decade or more, a larger proportion of Americans may need to take work in occupations that have historically required little skill and paid low wages. Analysis by David Autor indicates that from 1999 to 2007, low-skill jobs grew substantially as a share of all jobs in the United States. And while the lion’s share of jobs lost during the recession were middle-skill jobs, job growth since then has been tilted steeply toward the bottom of the economy; according to a survey by the National Employment Law Project, three-quarters of American job growth in 2010 came within industries paying, on average, less than $15 an hour. One of the largest challenges that Americans will face in the coming years will be doing what we can to make the jobs that have traditionally been near the bottom of the economy better, more secure, and more fulfilling—in other words, more like middle-class jobs.
Peck’s article offers a number of suggestions about how to regain a middle class and avoid further separation between those at the top and those at the bottom. Unfortunately, nothing so serious as his article seems to be on the table in Washington discussions. And it’s Americans who are paying for it.
Audio from The Take Away with guest Photojouranlist Steve Liss, director of AmericanPoverty.org: