While poverty has been
steadily declining since the last economic recession in the early 1990s,
it is still higher than the 1970s, when dramatic reductions in poverty
were achieved in the aftermath of the War on Poverty during the Kennedy
and Johnson administrations.
Because of its
persistence even in times of plenty, some may view poverty as an unsolvable
problem. In fact, programs comprising the federal government’s existing
social safety net — including Social Security, the Earned Income Tax Credit,
cash assistance, and in-kind programs like food stamps and housing aid
— have achieved substantial reductions in poverty. Studies indicate that
a relatively small and affordable increase in resources for these programs
could easily eliminate the last vestiges of poverty in the United States.
Official Estimates of Poverty
the impact of federal programs on poverty, it is important to discuss
how poverty is measured. The official rate of poverty in the United States
is estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau, which collects information on
poverty and income in an annual survey. The official rate is determined by
combining the money income of individuals and families before taxes with
cash assistance received from government programs and comparing this
level of income with established poverty thresholds, which vary depending
upon the size of the family and are adjusted annually to account for
the effects of inflation. In 1998 the poverty threshold for a single person
living alone was $8,316. The threshold for a couple (two adults) was
$10,634. For a family consisting of one adult and two children, it was
$13,133; for two adults and two children it was $16,530.
The official estimate
does not include non-cash government benefits, such as public housing,
Medicaid, and food stamps, but the Census issues a number of alternative
measures that attempt to account for the impact of these programs. Despite
its imperfections, however, the official estimate is still the one most
widely recognized and, because it has been used for decades, it continues
to be useful for assessing long-term changes in the national rate of poverty.
According to the
Census Bureau, 34.5 million Americans (12.7 percent) were poor in 1998,
the latest year for which data is available. This represented a drop of
about one half of one percent from the previous year, when the poverty
rate was 13.3 percent. The official poverty rate has been dropping steadily
since 1993, when it reached 15.1 percent following the recession of the
early 1990s. It is still generally higher, however, than the 1970s when
it ranged from 11.1 to 12.6 percent.
In 1998 the number
of "severely poor" (people with family income below one-half of the poverty
threshold) decreased from 14.6 million to 13.9 million. The number of
"near poor" (people with family incomes above the poverty threshold but
less 125 percent of the poverty threshold) dropped from 12.3 million to
Distribution of Poverty
Poverty in America
is far from uniform, varying by age, race, family composition and by region.
Age: The official
rate of poverty for children aged 0-17 is substantially higher than
for other age groups. In 1998 the child poverty rate was 18.9 percent
(13.5 million children), a one percent drop from 1997, when it was
19.9 percent. The poverty rate for children under age six was 20.6 percent,
statistically unchanged from 1997. The poverty rate for adults aged
18-64 and for seniors aged 65 and over was 10.5 percent. The rate
for adults aged 18-64 was down slightly from 10.9 percent in 1997,
while the rate for seniors was statistically unchanged.
Race: Blacks and Hispanics
suffer higher rates of poverty than whites and Asians. The poverty
rate for blacks in 1998 was 26.1 percent, statistically unchanged
from the year before. The poverty rate for Hispanics was 25.6 percent,
down from 27.1 percent. The rate for Asians and Pacific Islanders was 12.5
percent, down from 14 percent (not a statistically significant change).
The poverty rate for non-Hispanic whites was 8.2 percent, down from
8.6 percent. Even though the poverty rate for whites is lower than
for other groups, because whites make up the largest share of the
population, nearly half of the poor (46 percent) were non-Hispanic whites
Marriage tends to be associated with lower rates of poverty. In 1998,
the poverty rate for female-headed households with children and no
husband present was 29.9 percent. By contrast, the poverty rate for
married couples was just 5.3 percent.
the South has suffered much higher rates of poverty than the rest
of the country, but the difference has narrowed in recent years. In
1998 western states suffered the highest rate of poverty (14.0 percent),
followed by the South (13.7 percent), the northeast (12.3 percent) and the
midwest (10.3 percent). Geographically, more significant differences
can be found between inner cities (18.5 percent) and the suburbs
Census Bureau - Poverty Statistics Page: Census Bureau data on poverty and poor people by age, sex, race, Hispanic origin, state, incometopoverty ratio, and other characteristics; poverty rates; poverty thresholds; povety measurement; small area income and poverty estimates. The data were collected from the 1990 Census, the March Current Population Survey, and the Survey of Income and Program Participation.
2003 Poverty Estimate: Census Bureau data on: poverty and poor people by age, sex, race, Hispanic origin, state, income-to-poverty ratio, and other characteristics; poverty rates; poverty thresholds; povety measurement; small area income and poverty estimates. The data were collected from the 1990 Census, the March Current Population Survey, and the Survey of Income and Program Participation. (Census Bureau: 8/26/2004)