Plumbing the depths: population of extreme poor grows

Plumbing the depths: population of extreme poor grows

The ranks of the poor continue to swell in the country, the U.S. Census Bureau reported last Tuesday, with more than 15 percent of Americans falling beneath the federal government's definition of poverty last year. But it's not just that more of us are poor.

The poor, the agency found, are increasingly immiserated. What researchers call extreme or deep poverty is on the rise.

In all, 20.5 million people, or 6.7 percent of all Americans, were living last year in households that took in incomes of less than 50 percent of federal poverty thresholds. A family of four facing this situation would, for example, collectively earn about $11,000 annually. More than 44 percent of all poor people fell into this category last year.

The number of the extreme poor is up by 1.5 million over 2009, a leap of 6.3 percent. It's the highest number seen in the U.S. since 1975, when the agency first began keeping track of this population. The Economic Policy Institute graphed the historical trend out. Take a look:

Last year, 13.5 percent and 10.9 percent of all African Americans and Latinos, respectively, were in deep poverty. The numbers for Asians and white people were 5.8 percent and 5.5 percent.

Amy Terpstra, associate director of Heartland Alliance's Social Impact Research Center in Chicago, wasn't surprised by the findings.

"People who are poor are getting poorer," Terpstra said, predicting that the number of the extreme poor in Illinois will rise when the agency releases detailed state-level data.

That's partly because the job market remains stagnant. Unemployment and extreme poverty are "attached at the hip," she said, and the jobless rate here in Illinois is higher than the U.S. as a whole. "I don't think the conditions here in terms of the economy are any better than across the nation," she said.

In 2009, around 760,000 Illinoisians were living in extreme poverty, according to the Social Impact Research Center.

Terpstra said the extreme poor generally fall into two general categories. About half of them in Illinois are children, seniors or people with disabilities, "people who cannot work or are not expected to work."

The rest are often unemployed, and in many cases have "severe barriers" to finding work, either because they have a criminal record, no work history because of time spent in jail or because they have an extremely low education level.

About one in five of the extreme poor, Terpstra said, work at least half the year. "There are implications there for the quality of jobs people are holding," she said.

"Our economy has changed over the long term," Terpstra went on, "and the jobs that we have now are paying less. We now have a lot more low-wage work."

Photo courtesy Flickr user psd.

© Community Renewal Society 2011

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