WASHINGTON – The ranks of America’s poor are on track to climb to levels unseen in nearly half a century, erasing gains from the war on poverty in the 1960s amid a weak economy and fraying government safety net.

Census figures for 2011 will be released this fall in the critical weeks ahead of the November elections.

The Associated Press surveyed more than a dozen economists, think tanks and academics, both nonpartisan and those with known liberal or conservative leanings, and found a broad consensus: The official poverty rate will rise from 15.1 percent in 2010, climbing as high as 15.7 percent. Several predicted a more modest gain, but even a 0.1 percentage point increase would put poverty at the highest level since 1965.

MANY GROUPS HURTING

Poverty is spreading at record levels across many groups, from underemployed workers and suburban families to the poorest poor. More discouraged workers are giving up on the job market, leaving them vulnerable as unemployment aid begins to run out. Suburbs are seeing a rise in poverty, including in such political battlegrounds as Colorado, Florida and Nevada, where voters are coping with a new norm of living hand to mouth.

“I grew up going to Hawaii every summer. Now I’m here, applying for assistance because it’s hard to make ends meet. It’s very hard to adjust,” said Laura Fritz, 27, of Wheat Ridge, Colo., describing her slide from rich to poor as she filled out aid forms at a county center. Since 2000, large swaths of Jefferson County just outside Denver have seen poverty nearly double.

Fritz says she grew up wealthy in Highlands Ranch, a Denver suburb, but fortunes turned after her parents lost a significant amount of money in the housing bust. Stuck in a $500,000 house, her parents began living off food stamps and Fritz’s college money evaporated. She tried joining the Army but was injured during basic training.

Now she’s living on disability, with an infant daughter and a boyfriend, Garrett Goudeseune, 25, who can’t find work as a landscaper. They are struggling to pay their $650 rent on his unemployment checks and don’t know how they would get by without the extra help as they hope for the job market to improve.

In an election year dominated by discussion of the middle class, Fritz’s case highlights a dim reality for the growing group in poverty. Millions could fall through the cracks as government aid from unemployment insurance, Medicaid, welfare and food stamps diminishes.

“The issues aren’t just with public benefits. We have some deep problems in the economy,” said Peter Edelman, head of the Georgetown Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy.

He pointed to the recession but also longer-term changes in the economy such as globalization, automation, outsourcing, immigration and less unionization that have pushed median household income lower.

LOW-WAGE JOBS A DRAG

Even after strong economic growth in the 1990s, poverty never fell below a 1973 low of 11.1 percent. That low point came after President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, launched in 1964, that created Medicaid, Medicare and other social welfare programs.

“I’m reluctant to say that we’ve gone back to where we were in the 1960s. The programs we enacted make a big difference. The problem is that the tidal wave of low-wage jobs is dragging us down and the wage problem is not going to go away anytime soon,” Edelman said.

Stacey Mazer of the National Association of State Budget Officers said states will be watching for poverty increases when figures are released in September as they make decisions about the Medicaid expansion. Most states generally assume that poverty levels will hold mostly steady, and they will hesitate if the findings show otherwise. “It’s a constant tension in the budget,” she said.

The predictions for 2011 are based on separate AP interviews, supplemented with research on suburban poverty from Alan Berube of the Brookings Institution and an analysis of federal spending by the Congressional Research Service and Elise Gould of the Economic Policy Institute.

The analysts’ estimates suggest that some 47 million people in the U.S., or 1 in 6, were poor last year. An increase of one-tenth of a percentage point to 15.2 percent would tie the 1983 rate, the highest since 1965. The highest level on record was 22.4 percent in 1959, when the government began calculating poverty figures.

Poverty is closely tied to joblessness. While the unemployment rate improved from 9.6 percent in 2010 to 8.9 percent in 2011, the employment-population ratio remained largely unchanged, meaning that many discouraged workers simply stopped looking for work. Food stamp rolls, another indicator of poverty, also grew.

IS SOCIAL SAFETY NET WORKING?

“I’ve always been the guy who could find a job. Now I’m not,” said Dale Szymanski, 56, a Teamsters Union forklift operator and convention hand who lives outside Las Vegas. In a state where unemployment ranks highest in the nation, the Las Vegas suburbs have seen a particularly rapid increase in poverty from 9.7 percent in 2007 to 14.7 percent.

Szymanski, who moved from Wisconsin in 2000, said he used to make more than $40,000 a year but now doesn’t work enough hours to qualify for union health care. He changed apartments several months ago and sold his 2001 Chrysler Sebring to pay expenses.

“You keep thinking it’s going to turn around. But I’m stuck,” he said.

The 2010 poverty level was $22,314 for a family of four, and $11,139 for an individual, based on an official government calculation that includes only cash income, before tax deductions. It excludes capital gains or accumulated wealth, such as home ownership, as well as noncash aid such as food stamps and tax credits, which were expanded substantially under President Obama’s stimulus package.

An additional 9 million people in 2010 would have been counted above the poverty line if food stamps and tax credits were taken into account.

Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, believes the social safety net has worked and it is now time to cut back. He worries that advocates may use a rising poverty rate to justify additional spending on the poor, when in fact, he says, many live in decent-size homes, drive cars and own wide-screen TVs.

A new census measure accounts for noncash aid, but that supplemental poverty figure isn’t expected to be released until after the election. Since that measure is relatively new, the official rate remains the best gauge of year-to-year changes in poverty dating back to 1959.

Few people advocate cuts in anti-poverty programs. Roughly 79 percent of Americans think the gap between rich and poor has grown in the past two decades, according to a Public Religion Research Institute/RNS Religion News survey from November 2011.

The same poll found that about 67 percent oppose “cutting federal funding for social programs that help the poor” to help reduce the budget deficit.

 


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