Census Bureau: Poverty Rate Rises Past 2009 Level

The nation's overall poverty rate climbed to 15.1 percent last year, according to new data from the Census Bureau. That's up from 14.3 percent in 2009 — which means 46.2 million Americans were living in poverty in 2010.

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DAVID GREENE, host: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, host: And I'm Steve Inskeep. For many Americans, the economy isn't just failing to improve, it's actually getting worse.

GREENE: Despite the anxiety over the summer, the overall economy has been growing for a couple of years now.

INSKEEP: And despite the wild swings of recent months, the stock market is up sharply from its low point in early 2009.

GREENE: So some people are making money, and yet the latest numbers from the Census Bureau show an increase in 2010 in the number of people in poverty - to 15 percent.

INSKEEP: And not only that, the Census Bureau showed an even broader problem. It's revealed by the median income, a number at the dead center of the economy, with half of households earning more and half earning less.

GREENE: And last year, median income declined to its lowest level in years. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER: Perhaps one of the more telling signs of the bad economy was how many people doubled up with friends and relatives for housing. There were about 22 million of these households last year, 10 percent more than before the recession. And six million young adults, ages 25 to 34, were living with their parents. The Census Bureau says almost half of them would have been poor if their parents weren't supporting them.

RON HASKINS: The numbers are bad in every way. Poverty's up, income is down. It's a very very bad story.

FESSLER: Ron Haskins is a poverty expert with the Brookings Institution. He says the lack of jobs is the main culprit. But on top of that, he says, the bad numbers reflect the fact that so many of the unemployed have been out of work for so long.

HASKINS: And those are the people that are not only likely to be poor, but also to really face hardship.

FESSLER: Because they're running out of resources. And there was plenty of hardship to go around in 2010, according to the census. More than 46 million people -almost one in six - were poor last year, 2.6 million more than the year before. The census defines the poverty line as slightly more than $22,000 for a family of four, no matter where they live. Children were hit especially hard. More than one in five were poor last year. And for blacks and Hispanics, the poverty rate was about two and a half times greater than it was for non-Hispanic whites. On top of that, incomes dropped for just about everyone.

RICHARD BURKHAUSER: Virtually across the board, Americans were less well off in 2010 than in 2009.

FESSLER: Economist Rich Burkhauser of Cornell says even the wealthiest groups saw their incomes drop, something that didn't happen earlier in the recession. He says fewer people were working, and those who were were earning less. That was especially true for men.

BURKHAUSER: Not only are there fewer men working, but a greater percentage of those men are working part-time rather than full-time.

In fact, that was the case last year for about a third of working men. The Census Bureau says overall the median income in the U.S. dropped to about $49,500. That was a decline of more than six percent since the start of the recession.

FESSLER: But Sheldon Danziger, a public policy professor at the University of Michigan, says there are some more worrisome trends. He notes that the income for full-time male workers was basically unchanged from 1972.

SHELDON DANZIGER: That says the typical male worker hasn't made economic progress for almost 40 years.

FESSLER: And he's not very optimistic that things will turn around soon.

DANZIGER: The unemployment rate is still nine percent, only a little bit lower than it was in 2010. And state and local governments have really been laying off a lot of people and I think more than offsetting any of the stimulus spending that's still around.

FESSLER: In fact, the Census Bureau credited some of that stimulus spending - especially extended unemployment benefits - for keeping more than two million adults above the poverty line last year. Danziger thinks that 's a good reason why those benefits should be extended even more. But that's part of what Congress and the White House are debating right now, how best to deal with an economy that doesn't seem to want to get better and that has already left so much wreckage in its wake. Burkhauser thinks one answer might be to cut marginal tax rates to encourage employers to hire more.

BURKHAUSER: The mantra jobs, jobs, jobs - absolutely correct. The question is how to do it.

FESSLER: And that is the question. Yesterday's numbers will likely fuel the debate. But they appear to provide few, if any, answers. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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