US poverty on track to rise to highest since 1960s
"The issues aren't just with public benefits. We have some deep problems in the economy," said Peter Edelman, director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy.
He pointed to the recent recession but also longer-term changes in the economy such as globalization, automation, outsourcing, immigration, and less unionization that have pushed median household income lower. Even after strong economic growth in the 1990s, poverty never fell below a 1973 low of 11.1 percent. That low point came after President Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty, launched in 1964, that created Medicaid, the Medicare health care program for the elderly and other social welfare programs.
"I'm reluctant to say that we've gone back to where we were in the 1960s. The programs we enacted make a big difference. The problem is that the tidal wave of low-wage jobs is dragging us down and the wage problem is not going to go away anytime soon," Edelman said.
Stacey Mazer of the National Association of State Budget Officers said states will be watching for poverty increases when figures are released in September as they make decisions about the Medicaid expansion. Most states generally assume poverty levels will hold mostly steady and they will hesitate if the findings show otherwise. "It's a constant tension in the budget," she said.
The predictions for 2011 are based on separate AP interviews, supplemented with research on suburban poverty from Alan Berube of the Brookings Institution and an analysis of federal spending by the Congressional Research Service and Elise Gould of the Economic Policy Institute.
The analysts' estimates suggest that some 47 million people in the U.S., or 1 in 6, were poor last year. An increase of one-tenth of a percentage point to 15.2 percent would tie the 1983 rate, the highest since 1965. The highest level on record was 22.4 percent in 1959, when the government began calculating poverty figures.
Poverty is closely tied to joblessness. While the unemployment rate improved from 9.6 percent in 2010 to 8.9 percent in 2011, the employment-population ratio remained largely unchanged, meaning many discouraged workers simply stopped looking for work. Food stamp rolls, another indicator of poverty, also grew.
Demographers also say:
-Poverty will remain above the pre-recession level of 12.5 percent for many more years. Several predicted that peak poverty levels - 15 percent to 16 percent - will last at least until 2014, due to expiring unemployment benefits, a jobless rate persistently above 6 percent and weak wage growth.
-Suburban poverty, already at a record level of 11.8 percent, will increase again in 2011.
-Part-time or underemployed workers, who saw a record 15 percent poverty in 2010, will rise to a new high.
-Poverty among people 65 and older will remain at historically low levels, buoyed by Social Security cash payments.
-Child poverty will increase from its 22 percent level in 2010.
Analysts also believe that the poorest poor, defined as those at 50 percent or less of the poverty level, will remain near its peak level of 6.7 percent.
"I've always been the guy who could find a job. Now I'm not," said Dale Szymanski, 56, a Teamsters Union forklift operator and convention hand who lives outside Las Vegas in Clark County. In a state where unemployment ranks highest in the nation, the Las Vegas suburbs have seen a particularly rapid increase in poverty from 9.7 percent in 2007 to 14.7 percent.
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