The Truth About the Poverty Crisis

Publication: Time

Author: Rana Fohoohar

09/23/2011 - It's official: There are now more poor people in America than at any other time in the 52 years records have been kept. We knew that the 2010 poverty numbers, released by the Census Bureau on Sept. 13, weren't going to be good. They turned out to be, in the words of Brookings senior fellow Ron Haskins, "extraordinarily bad." More than 15% of Americans live below the poverty line. The total rose for the fourth consecutive year. For a family of four, poverty means scraping by on roughly $22,000 a year.

The new poverty crisis has emerged in part out of the other economic crisis we are facing: unemployment. The fastest way to poverty is job loss, and 6.5 million jobs were lost in the recession. Today, a full two years into the "recovery," more than 9% of Americans are still out of work. But a fact that may be buried in the copious coverage of these new figures is that the poverty problem didn't start with the financial crisis and the subsequent downturn. Its roots go much deeper, possibly to the recession of 2000, after which poverty levels didn't drop back to their prerecession numbers as they typically do after a recovery.


But the poverty problem is also about the fracturing of the American Dream, specifically the dream of upward mobility. It's become increasingly hard for Americans to rise above the socioeconomic status of their birth, particularly compared with their peers in other rich nations. "Poverty is in many ways about a lack of social mobility," says Erin Currier, who studies these topics at the Pew Charitable Trusts. And research shows that even before the current crisis, Americans had much less mobility than people in many European nations. "We have a belief system and an idea about ourselves that don't always align well with the facts," notes Isabel Sawhill, a co-director, with Haskins, of the Center on Children and Families at Brookings.

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