Census Shows Sharp Increase in U.S. Poor

Sep 16, 2010· 1 MIN READ
Following the lead of Wilt Chamberlain, Adam vacated his native Philadelphia for Los Angeles following decades of acclaim and short shorts. He firmly believes that, when it comes to the opportunity for change, we’re on the goal line with bases loaded and no fouls to give. He also finds inspiration in mixed sports metaphors.
Soup kitchens are serving an ever-expanding client base. (Photo: Vincent Kessler/Reuters)

According to the 2009 Census, skyrocketing unemployment across the United States has put one in seven Americans (14.3 percent of the population) in poverty.

43.6 million Americans—the largest number in 51 years of poverty estimates—were living below the federal threshold in 2009, up from 39.1 million in 2008.

The news marks the third consecutive annual increase in the number of Americans living in poverty.

Children bore the brunt of the hand-wringing in the world's wealthiest nation, with one out of five under the age of 18 caught below the poverty line.

The new Census report is a concrete indicator of just how deep America's dug itself since the start of the Great Recession in 2008.

Two years ago, on September 15, Wall Street behemoth Lehman Brothers declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy while holding on to over $600 billion in financial assets.

Over the next few days, financial houses across the country caught the very same cold, brought on in large part by the toxic subprime securities that stocked their portfolios.

When the Street hit the fan, the U.S. found itself riddled with a fiscal disease that its economic immune system was in no condition to fight.

The country’s recession-weary wheels have been struggling for traction ever since, with more and more Americans slipping out of work and into poverty.

"The deterioration in the labor market from 2008 to 2009 was the worst we've ever seen," economist Heidi Shierholz told the Wall Street Journal. "When you see a big deterioration in the labor market, poverty rises. The vast majority of people in this country depend on the labor market for their income."

Despite gains since the big bust, growth in the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) hasn’t reached many American wallets.

"Most of that growth in GDP has not been trickling down to the typical household," says Harvard University’s Lawrence Katz. "GDP largely showed up in profits but didn't show up in earnings of workers. Productivity went up, but those benefits didn't translate into rapidly growing wages."

The Census report provides only a partial picture of the uphill battle Americans are fighting to make ends meet. Some critics believe the standard measure—which fails to account for the rising cost of housing, medical services, energy, or the regional difference in the cost of living—actually underestimates the number of Americans in poverty.

Poverty experts often double the standard threshold to take a more accurate measure of the nation’s poor.

Details of the nervous conversations taking place around America’s kitchen tables were not included in the Census report, nor were blood pressure readings from the nation’s working poor and unemployed as they lay awake throughout the night with trying economic times on their minds.

Those real indicators of America’s financial distress are best understood by reading between the lines of economic analysis.