Poverty Rate In U.S. Climbs

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The poverty rate in the United States rose to 14.3 percent, the U.S. Census Bureau reported Thursday. That's 43.6 million people in poverty, up from 39.8 million in 2008.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

DAVID GREENE, host:

And I'm David Greene.

Poverty is up in the United States. We begin this hour with the latest census report on poverty and a view from the ground, from a woman who helps growing numbers of homeless in Florida. First, the report: It found that last year, about 3.7 million people joined the ranks of the poor. Now, one in seven people in this country live in poverty. Stil, some experts had predicted the numbers would be even worse, as NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER: Forty-three point six million people were poor last year. That's the highest number since the government began keeping track. Many struggle to find work. Others had trouble making ends meet. Here are some of them.

Ms. BILLIE JACKSON(ph): I'm Billie Jackson. I'm 31, and I have two degrees. I have a physician assistant degree and a hotel-restaurant degree, and I can't find work at all. I've been looking for work since May of 2008. My husband's been out of work for a year and a half.

Mr. JEFF McGREGOR(ph): My name is Jeff McGregor, and I'm 42. Painter. It's just hard to find work. There's not a lot of work out there. My kids: Hannah(ph), Savannah(ph) and Nicholas(ph) - 2, 4 and 7.

Mr. STEVE JOHNSON(ph): My name is Steve Johnson. I'm 31. I'm single. No kids. I was working at a structural engineering firm. Got laid off and nothing now. Definitely poor.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER HANCOCK(ph): My name is Christopher Hancock. I'm 48 years old. I'm homeless. I had a good job back in 2007, lost it in 2008. I found myself in a position that I never thought I would ever be in -where I'm going to sleep, what I'm going to eat, what I'm going to wear?

FESSLER: In California, Illinois, Maryland and almost everywhere in between, the number of poor Americans went up. The 14.3 percent poverty rate was the highest it's been since 1994. For blacks and Hispanics, the rate grew to be more than 25 percent.

Ms. REBECCA BLANK (Undersecretary for Economic Affairs, U.S. Commerce Department): These are sobering numbers, as we expected them to be.

FESSLER: Rebecca Blank is undersecretary for economic affairs at the Commerce Department, which released the report.

Ms. BLANK: Given how much unemployment went up and how bad the economy was, we expected this report to look bad. The surprise is actually that it looks better than many people expected.

FESSLER: Some thought the poverty rate would go as high as 15 percent, but Blank says several things worked to prevent that, including increased government aid.

Ms. BLANK: Social Security, you could really see helping the elderly. The unemployment insurance programs have helped working adults.

FESSLER: In fact, Congress last year approved tens of billions of dollars in spending on unemployment benefits and other aid for low-income Americans. The report says as a result, median income in the United States was basically unchanged, and poverty among the elderly -many of whom rely on Social Security - actually declined last year, to a rate of about 9 percent. But there were also some troubling trends.

Ron Haskins is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Mr. RON HASKINS (Senior Fellow in Economic Studies, Brookings Institution): Well, the big story is always what happens to kids, in my view, and what happened to kids is not good. The poverty rate increased quite substantially for children.

FESSLER: To almost 21 percent. That means that more than 15 million children in the U.S. were poor last year.

Mr. HASKINS: Another piece of bad news that's very unfortunate is that health-insurance coverage among the American people actually fell, and that has not happened since the Census Bureau started keeping records in the late 1980s.

FESSLER: The number of people without health insurance rose to almost 51 million - 4 million more than the year before. Many lost employer-provided coverage, and Haskins says while government-provided health care has made up the difference in the past, it failed to do so in 2009.

In all, says Sheldon Danziger of the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan, poor Americans have it tough. And he doesn't think more jobs will be enough to turn things around.

Mr. SHELDON DANZIGER (Director, National Poverty Center): We no longer live in an economy when a rising tide lifts all boats.

FESSLER: He thinks there needs to be more aid to help the poor get back on their feet, but that's the big debate this fall. In a statement today, President Obama noted that millions of Americans were kept out of poverty by spending in last year's economic stimulus package. But Republicans see the rising poverty numbers as evidence that the administration's economic policies aren't working. They say the best way to help the poor is to create jobs, and that the best way to do that is for the government to cut taxes and spend less.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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