The U.S. Census Bureau has just released its 2009 poverty estimates to much fanfare and press coverage. The headline statistic: 44 million people, roughly 1 in 7 Americans, were in poverty in 2009.
I want to make three brief observations:
First, as Stephen Crawford and Shawn Fremstad point out on the Reuters blog, the official poverty estimates are too conservative, because they do not take into account consumption and assets. Families that have zero, or negative assets, as many poor families do, are much worse off than people with savings to draw down during hard times. This is a particularly important issue in the current context because beginning in late 1990s many lower middle class families had tied up their wealth in risky home mortgages. When the housing market tanked in 2007-2008, many families found their housing wealth virtually obliterated. Even if the working adults in the family stayed in their jobs, they were in much more precarious positions, and often in substantial debt.
Second, much of the story is about jobs. The median income for both male and female full-time workers actually did not change between 2008 and 2009. The Census bureau report states: “Between 2008 and 2009, the increase in poverty among workers was driven almost entirely by those who worked less than full-time, year-round” (p. 17). The big change was the number of people transitioning to part-time, unemployment, or out of the labor force entirely. Were it not for unemployment insurance, the situation would be much grimmer.
Third, one of the populations where poverty grew fastest was among children under age 18. Much of this has to do with the precarious position of low-income working families. I’ll have more to say about children and the recession in a future post.