ANN ARBOR (WWJ/AP) - New census bureau figures show nearly half of all Americans have fallen into poverty or are treading water just above it, with earnings that classify them as either living in poverty or as low-income — the highest total ever.
University of Michigan Public Policy Professor Sheldon Danziger said a majority of families are barely scraping by.
“Half of men who work full-time, full year earn $45,000 or less. So that says the typical man, 50 percent of men on their own can’t support a family of four above the poverty line,” said Danziger.
The latest census data depict a middle class that’s shrinking as unemployment stays high and the government’s safety net frays. The new numbers follow years of stagnating wages for the middle class that have hurt millions of workers and families.
“Theres a spectrum of economic trauma ranging from people who are desperate to people who make ends meet from week to week,” said Danziger.
Mayors in 29 cities say more than 1 in 4 people needing emergency food assistance did not receive it. Many middle-class Americans are dropping below the low-income threshold — roughly $45,000 for a family of four — because of pay cuts, a forced reduction of work hours or a spouse losing a job. Housing and child-care costs are consuming up to half of a family’s income.
“The poor depend on government safety net programs. Forty-some million people currently get food stamps, that’s one-eighth of the population. Something like 40 percent of all births last year were covered by the Medicaid program,” said Danziger.
About 97.3 million Americans fall into a low-income category, commonly defined as those earning between 100 and 199 percent of the poverty level, based on a new supplemental measure by the Census Bureau that is designed to provide a fuller picture of poverty. Together with the 49.1 million who fall below the poverty line and are counted as poor, they number 146.4 million, or 48 percent of the U.S. population. That’s up by 4 million from 2009, the earliest numbers for the newly developed poverty measure.
The new measure of poverty takes into account medical, commuting and other living costs. Doing that helped push the number of people below 200 percent of the poverty level up from 104 million, or 1 in 3 Americans, that was officially reported in September.
Broken down by age, children were most likely to be poor or low-income — about 57 percent — followed by seniors over 65. By race and ethnicity, Hispanics topped the list at 73 percent, followed by blacks, Asians and non-Hispanic whites.
Even by traditional measures, many working families are hurting.
Following the recession that began in late 2007, the share of working families who are low-income has risen for three straight years to 31.2 percent, or 10.2 million. That proportion is the highest in at least a decade, up from 27 percent in 2002, according to a new analysis by the Working Poor Families Project and the Population Reference Bureau, a nonprofit research group based in Washington.
Among low-income families, about one-third were considered poor while the remainder — 6.9 million — earned income just above the poverty line. Many states phase out eligibility for food stamps, Medicaid, tax credit and other government aid programs for low-income Americans as they approach 200 percent of the poverty level.
The majority of low-income families — 62 percent — spent more than one-third of their earnings on housing, surpassing a common guideline for what is considered affordable. By some census surveys, child-care costs consume close to another one-fifth.
Paychecks for low-income families are shrinking. The inflation-adjusted average earnings for the bottom 20 percent of families have fallen from $16,788 in 1979 to just under $15,000, and earnings for the next 20 percent have remained flat at $37,000. In contrast, higher-income brackets had significant wage growth since 1979, with earnings for the top 5 percent of families climbing 64 percent to more than $313,000.
A survey of 29 cities conducted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors being released Thursday points to a gloomy outlook for those on the lower end of the income scale.
Many mayors cited the challenges of meeting increased demands for food assistance, expressing particular concern about possible cuts to federal programs such as food stamps and WIC, which assists low-income pregnant women and mothers. Unemployment led the list of causes of hunger in cities, followed by poverty, low wages and high housing costs.
Among those requesting emergency food assistance, 51 percent were in families, 26 percent were employed, 19 percent were elderly and 11 percent were homeless.
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