Census Survey: Poor Americans Increased In 2011

The Census Bureau has released the results of the American Community Survey. The bad news is that poverty is up. Nearly 16 percent of Americans live below the poverty line. Median household income is down too. The good news is that declines are not as steep as the depths of the recession.

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More Americans slipped below the poverty line - and more people earned slightly less - last year, than in 2010. Those are some of the findings of the U.S. Census Bureau's annual survey of American communities, that's being released today. It covers everything from income and education, to how many languages are spoken at home. As NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, the survey shows that many Americans are still feeling the impact of the Great Recession.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: The bad news is that the median household income has dropped for four years in a row. Last year, it dropped by 1.3 percent, to a little over $50,000. The median means that half of American households earned more, and half earned less, than $50,000. Less income means - of course - Americans have less money to spend or save. The good news is that the drop in household median income is not as dramatic as the past few years.

WILLIAM FREY: I think there is at least a hint that we have hit bottom, in this post-recession malaise in the United States.

GONZALES: William Frey is a demographer at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. He says the trend is still working in the wrong direction, but it's running at a different pace than in 2008 and 2009.

FREY: And by that, I mean we've not turned up, but we're going down at a slower pace; and we might see a little bit of the glimmer of the light at the end of the tunnel.

GONZALES: Something similar appears to be happening with a number of poor people in this country. More than 48 million Americans lived in poverty in 2011, an increase of more than 2 million people over the year before. In percentage terms, that's almost 16 percent of Americans living below the poverty line - defined by the census as a little under $23,000, for a family of four. The growth rate in poverty may have slowed down in 2011, but the impact on children is long-lasting.

BETH MATTINGLY: The research suggests that kids who grow up in poverty, suffer consequences of that poverty throughout their lives; in terms of their cognitive development, their educational attainment, their future occupation and earnings, and their health outcomes.

GONZALES: Beth Mattingly directs research on family poverty, at the University of New Hampshire's Carsey Institute. The survey says 16.4 million kids lived in poverty in 2011, up by 700,000 from the year before.

MATTINGLY: And so it's important to care about these kids, in and of themselves. But as a nation, there are consequences to all those problems that poor kids will encounter down the road.

GONZALES: Census Bureau officials stress that the American Community Survey numbers are estimates. Still, the survey is relied upon by private businesses, and town and city planners. It tracks the movement of people within the United States, and it includes data on foreign-born residents. The Brookings Institution's William Frey says something that jumped out at him was a relative decline in immigration from Latin America. About half the states in the country show flat growth, or declines, in foreign-born Hispanics.

FREY: And some of those - that are sort of significant - are California, Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina. Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina are three states that, you know, were gaining lots of these folks during the boom years, but not so much in the last year. In fact, it's negative.

GONZALES: Immigration experts have noted for years that the flow, primarily from Mexico, is slowing. But Emilio Parrado, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, says there are other factors as well.

EMILIO PARRADO: You know, the Obama administration has deported, you know, 1.6 million immigrants. I wouldn't be surprised if places where they have had very tough immigration policies, the immigrant population is declining.

GONZALES: And that trend is expected to continue, as a demand for low-skilled labor dries up. Meanwhile, finding a silver lining in the new census data may not be easy for Americans waiting for the economy to turn around enough to raise incomes and reduce poverty, especially when no one is expecting a very robust recovery.

Richard Gonzalez, NPR News, San Francisco.

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