It was good timing that the 2011 data updates of the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey Estimates were released last week, while a national debate — inadvertent, to be sure — was focused on questions of poverty, dependence and the role of government. More than the subjective impressions and assumptions that often drive political rhetoric, the hard data of the census reports capture the spread and depth of poverty as the nation grapples with the lingering effects of the Great Recession.
The Community Survey measures poverty by comparing annual household income relative to federal poverty thresholds (in 2011, set at $23,021 for a family of four). The survey found the poverty rate essentially flat, with 15.9 percent of Americans living in poverty in 2011, the number of impoverished rising by 2.2 million from 2010. All the same, that is 48.5 million Americans with incomes below levels the government deems adequate.
The percentage of Ohioans living in poverty rose from 15.8 percent in 2010 to 16.4 percent last year, a rate higher than the national average. Ohio also ranked above the national average in the percentage of residents in deep poverty, their household income at 50 percent or less of the poverty threshold. The Toledo metropolitan area ranked as one of the 10 metro areas with the highest poverty rates in the nation last year. Summit County posted discouraging figures, too, the poverty rate rising from 15.3 percent to 16.6 percent.
If nothing else, the raging controversy in the past week regarding poverty and self-sufficiency should help to clarify not only the many factors contributing to persistent poverty but also the social and economic policy choices and the sustained efforts that are necessary to break the cycle for those stuck in poverty.
Among the key contributors to current poverty levels, of course, is the impact of a deep recession and the preceding years of lagging economic growth. As an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities indicates, the economic recovery that began in 2001 and lasted until the recession hit in late 2007 “marked the first sustained expansion on record in which growth was so weak, and income gains so unevenly shared, that poverty was higher by the end of it than at the beginning.”
Thus, it should be little surprise that the poverty rate remains high, given the remarkably slow post-recession recovery and unemployment figures still higher than 2007 levels.
Equally important, structural shifts are occurring in the national and local economies. Studies show significant numbers of residents are ill-prepared to take advantage of the shifts even when the economy expands. For instance, 31.9 percent of those living in poverty in Summit County last year had less than a high school diploma, compared to 4.9 percent with a bachelor’s degree.
Forty-eight million Americans need a debate between the presidential candidates that explains the landscape and highlights the paths the country will take to help them rise out of poverty.