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February 24, 2007


By Tony Pugh

WASHINGTON -- The percentage of poor Americans who are living in
severe poverty has reached a 32-year high, millions of working
Americans are falling closer to the poverty line and the gulf between
the nation's "haves" and "have-nots" continues to widen.

A McClatchy Newspapers analysis of 2005 census figures, the latest
available, found that nearly 16 million Americans are living in deep
or severe poverty. A family of four with two children and an annual
income of less than $9,903 -- half the federal poverty line -- was
considered severely poor in 2005. So were individuals who made less
than $5,080 a year.

The McClatchy analysis found that the number of severely poor
Americans grew by 26 percent from 2000 to 2005. That's 56 percent
faster than the overall poverty population grew in the same period.
McClatchy's review also found statistically significant increases in
the percentage of the population in severe poverty in 65 of 215 large
U.S. counties, and similar increases in 28 states. The review also
suggested that the rise in severely poor residents isn't confined to
large urban counties but extends to suburban and rural areas.

The plight of the severely poor is a distressing sidebar to an unusual
economic expansion. Worker productivity has increased dramatically
since the brief recession of 2001, but wages and job growth have
lagged behind. At the same time, the share of national income going to
corporate profits has dwarfed the amount going to wages and salaries.
That helps explain why the median household income of working-age
families, adjusted for inflation, has fallen for five straight years.

These and other factors have helped push 43 percent of the nation's 37
million poor people into deep poverty -- the highest rate since at
least 1975.

The share of poor Americans in deep poverty has climbed slowly but
steadily over the last three decades. But since 2000, the number of
severely poor has grown "more than any other segment of the
population," according to a recent study in the American Journal of
Preventive Medicine.

"That was the exact opposite of what we anticipated when we began,"
said Dr. Steven Woolf of Virginia Commonwealth University, who co-
authored the study. "We're not seeing as much moderate poverty as a
proportion of the population. What we're seeing is a dramatic growth
of severe poverty."

The growth spurt, which leveled off in 2005, in part reflects how hard
it is for low-skilled workers to earn their way out of poverty in an
unstable job market that favors skilled and educated workers. It also
suggests that social programs aren't as effective as they once were at
catching those who fall into economic despair.

About one in three severely poor people are under age 17, and nearly
two out of three are female. Female- headed families with children
account for a large share of the severely poor.

Nearly two out of three people (10.3 million) in severe poverty are
white, but blacks (4.3 million) and Hispanics of any race (3.7
million) make up disproportionate shares. Blacks are nearly three
times as likely as non-Hispanic whites to be in deep poverty, while
Hispanics are roughly twice as likely.

Washington, D.C., the nation's capital, has a higher concentration of
severely poor people -- 10.8 percent in 2005 -- than any of the 50
states, topping even hurricane-ravaged Mississippi and Louisiana, with
9.3 percent and 8.3 percent, respectively. Nearly six of 10 poor
District residents are in extreme poverty.


A few miles from the Capitol Building, 60-year-old John Treece
pondered his life in deep poverty as he left a local food pantry with
two bags of free groceries.

Plagued by arthritis, back problems and myriad ailments from years of
manual labor, Treece has been unable to work full time for 15 years.
He's tried unsuccessfully to get benefits from the Social Security
Administration, which he said disputes his injuries and work history.

In 2006, an extremely poor individual earned less than $5,244 a year,
according to federal poverty guidelines. Treece said he earned about
that much in 2006 doing odd jobs.

Wearing shoes with holes, a tattered plaid jacket and a battered
baseball cap, Treece lives hand-to-mouth in a $450-a-month room in a
nondescript boarding house in a high-crime neighborhood. Thanks to
food stamps, the food pantry and help from relatives, Treece said he
never goes hungry. But toothpaste, soap, toilet paper and other items
that require cash are tougher to come by.

"Sometimes it makes you want to do the wrong thing, you know," Treece
said, referring to crime. "But I ain't a kid no more. I can't do no
time. At this point, I ain't got a lotta years left."

Treece remains positive and humble despite his circumstances.

"I don't ask for nothing," he said. "I just thank the Lord for this
day and ask that tomorrow be just as blessed."

Like Treece, many who did physical labor during their peak earning
years have watched their job prospects dim as their bodies gave out.

David Jones, the president of the Community Service Society of New
York City, an advocacy group for the poor, testified before the House
Ways and Means Committee last month that he was shocked to discover
how pervasive the problem was.

"You have this whole cohort of, particularly African- Americans of
limited skills, men, who can't participate in the workforce because
they don't have skills to do anything but heavy labor," he said.


Severe poverty is worst near the Mexican border and in some areas of
the South, where 6.5 million severely poor residents are struggling to
find work as manufacturing jobs in the textile, apparel and furniture-
making industries disappear. The Midwestern Rust Belt and areas of the
Northeast also have been hard hit as economic restructuring and
foreign competition have forced numerous plant closings.

At the same time, low-skilled immigrants with impoverished family
members are increasingly drawn to the South and Midwest to work in the
meatpacking, food processing and agricultural industries.

These and other factors such as increased fluctuations in family
incomes and illegal immigration have helped push 43 percent of the
nation's 37 million poor people into deep poverty -- the highest rate
in at least 32 years.

"What appears to be taking place is that, over the long term, you have
a significant permanent underclass that is not being impacted by anti-
poverty policies," said Michael Tanner, the director of Health and
Welfare Studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.

Arloc Sherman, a senior researcher at the Center on Budget and Policy
Priorities, a liberal think tank, disagreed. "It doesn't look like a
growing permanent underclass," said Sherman, whose organization has
chronicled the growth of deep poverty. "What you see in the data are
more and more single moms with children who lose their jobs and who
aren't being caught by a safety net anymore."

About 1.1 million such families account for roughly 2.1 million deeply
poor children, Sherman said.

After fleeing an abusive marriage in 2002, 42-year-old Marjorie Sant
moved with her three children from Arkansas to a seedy boarding house
in Raleigh, N.C., where the four shared one bedroom. For most of 2005,
they lived off food stamps and the $300 a month in Social Security
Disability Income for her son with attention deficit hyperactivity
disorder. Teachers offered clothes to Sant's children. Saturdays meant
lunch at the Salvation Army.

"To depend on other people to feed and clothe your kids is horrible,"
Sant said. "I found myself in a hole and didn't know how to get out."

In the summer of 2005, social workers warned that she'd lose her
children if her home situation didn't change. Sant then brought her
two youngest children to a temporary housing program at the Raleigh
Rescue Mission while her oldest son moved to California to live with
an adult daughter from a previous marriage.

So for 10 months, Sant learned basic office skills. She now lives in a
rented house, works two jobs and earns about $20,400 a year.

Sant is proud of where she is, but she knows that "if something went
wrong, I could well be back to where I was."


As more poor Americans sink into severe poverty, more individuals and
families living within $8,000 above or below the poverty line also
have seen their incomes decline. Steven Woolf of Virginia Commonwealth
University attributes this to what he calls a "sinkhole effect" on

"Just as a sinkhole causes everything above it to collapse downward,
families and individuals in the middle and upper classes appear to be
migrating to lower-income tiers that bring them closer to the poverty
threshold," Woolf wrote in the study.

Before Hurricane Katrina, Rene Winn of Biloxi, Miss., earned $28,000 a
year as an administrator for the Boys and Girls Club. But for 11
months in 2006, she couldn't find steady work and wouldn't take a
fast-food job. As her opportunities dwindled, Winn's frustration grew.

"Some days I feel like the world is mine and I can create my own
destiny," she said. "Other days I feel a desperate feeling. Like I
gotta' hurry up. Like my career is at a stop. Like I'm getting nowhere
fast. And that's not me because I've always been a positive person."

After relocating to New Jersey for 10 months after the storm, Winn
returned to Biloxi in September because of medical and emotional
problems with her son. She and her two youngest children moved into
her sister's home along with her mother, who has Alzheimer's. With her
sister, brother-in-law and their two children, eight people now share
a three-bedroom home.

Winn said she recently took a job as a technician at the state health
department. The hourly job pays $16,120 a year. That's enough to bring
her out of severe poverty and just $122 shy of the $16,242 needed for
a single mother with two children to escape poverty altogether under
current federal guidelines.

Winn eventually wants to transfer to a higher-paying job, but she's
thankful for her current position.

"I'm very independent and used to taking care of my own, so I don't
like the fact that I have to depend on the state. I want to be able to
do it myself."

The Census Bureau's Survey of Income and Program Participation shows
that, in a given month, only 10 percent of severely poor Americans
received Temporary Assistance for Needy Families in 2003 -- the latest
year available -- and that only 36 percent received food stamps.

Many could have exhausted their eligibility for welfare or decided
that the new program requirements were too onerous. But the low
participation rates are troubling because the worst byproducts of
poverty, such as higher crime and violence rates and poor health,
nutrition and educational outcomes, are worse for those in deep

Over the last two decades, America has had the highest or near-highest
poverty rates for children, individual adults and families among 31
developed countries, according to the Luxembourg Income Study, a 23-
year project that compares poverty and income data from 31 industrial

"It's shameful," said Timothy Smeeding, the former director of the
study and the current head of the Center for Policy Research at
Syracuse University. "We've been the worst performer every year since
we've been doing this study."

With the exception of Mexico and Russia, the U.S. devotes the smallest
portion of its gross domestic product to federal anti-poverty
programs, and those programs are among the least effective at reducing
poverty, the study found. Again, only Russia and Mexico do worse jobs.

One in three Americans will experience a full year of extreme poverty
at some point in his or her adult life, according to long-term
research by Mark Rank, a professor of social welfare at the University
of Wisconsin, Madison.

An estimated 58 percent of Americans between the ages of 20 and 75
will spend at least a year in poverty, Rank said. Two of three will
use a public assistance program between ages 20 and 65, and 40 percent
will do so for five years or more.

These estimates apply only to non-immigrants. If illegal immigrants
were factored in, the numbers would be worse, Rank said.

"It would appear that for most Americans the question is no longer if,
but rather when, they will experience poverty. In short, poverty has
become a routine and unfortunate part of the American life course,"
Rank wrote in a recent study. "Whether these patterns will continue
throughout the first decade of 2000 and beyond is difficult to say ...
but there is little reason to think that this trend will reverse
itself any time soon."


Most researchers and economists say federal poverty estimates are a
poor tool to gauge the complexity of poverty. The numbers don't factor
in assistance from government anti-poverty programs, such as food
stamps, housing subsidies and the Earned Income Tax Credit, all of
which increase incomes and help pull people out of poverty.

But federal poverty measures also exclude work-related expenses and
necessities such as day care, transportation, housing and health care
costs, which eat up large portions of disposable income, particularly
for low-income families.

Alternative poverty measures that account for these shortcomings
typically inflate or deflate official poverty statistics. But many of
those alternative measures show the same kind of long-term trends as
the official poverty data.

Robert Rector, a senior researcher with the Heritage Foundation, a
conservative think tank, questioned the growth of severe poverty,
saying that census data become less accurate farther down the income
ladder. He said many poor people, particularly single mothers with
boyfriends, underreport their income by not including cash gifts and
loans. Rector said he's seen no data that suggest increasing
deprivation among the very poor.

Arloc Sherman of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
argues that the growing number of severely poor is an indisputable

"When we check against more complete government survey data and
administrative records from the benefit programs themselves, they
confirm that this trend is real," Sherman said. He added that even
among the poor, severely poor people have a much tougher time paying
their bills. "That's another sign to me that we're seeing something
real and troubling," Sherman said.

McClatchy correspondent Barbara Barrett contributed to this report.


States with the most people in severe poverty:

California -- 1.9 million

Texas -- 1.6 million

New York -- 1.2 million

Florida -- 943,670

Illinois -- 681,786

Ohio -- 657,415

Pennsylvania -- 618,229

Michigan -- 576,428

Georgia -- 562,014

North Carolina -- 523,511

Source: U.S. Census Bureau