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Poverty’s Rise Hits Some Places More than Others

Yesterday’s annual release by the Census reports that 14.3 percent of Americans (43.6 million people) were in poverty in 2009, up from 13.2 percent in 2008. That represents the biggest one-year percentage point increase since 1980, and the second largest increase since the measure was employed in 1959.   The report isn’t surprising for people who have seen their families and communities steeped in bills or out of work, but it might finally (officially) be a wake-up call for Washington.

We don’t yet have local data on poverty in 2009 (on its way September 28th), but we know that poverty–as incomplete a measure as it is (i.e. $21,756 for a family of four) - affects people differently in different places. 16 states in particular saw significant increases in the shares of their population that fell below the poverty line in 2008–2009, concentrated mostly in the South and West (see map below). Arizona, Indiana, New Mexico, and Georgia saw increases more than four times the national average (1.1 percentage points). By 2009, almost one in five people in New Mexico and Arizona were in poverty. Poverty also increased significantly in Sun Belt states like Florida, California, and Nevada, as the housing crisis rippled through metropolitan area economies beyond the real estate sector.

Once the local area data come out at the end of the month, we’ll know who felt the brunt of the recession in its second year--and more precisely where. That noted, the state numbers seem to align with our metro area projections--that Sun Belt metros (i.e. Cape Coral, Stockton, Modesto, Riverside, Fresno, and Las Vegas) are likely to see poverty increases upwards of 3 percentage points given their steep increases in unemployment in 2009.

Place by place, the economy seems to slowly be recovering, but the majority of Americans are not likely to feel the effects of a recovery--assuming it takes hold---for at least another couple years. One of the more sobering statistics to come out of the Census report is that the poverty rate among working Americans is up, and is driven almost entirely by people working part-time jobs. On a positive note, this speaks to the resilience of the workforce to find or maintain some employmentin a hostile economic climate. On a negative note, the 14.5 percent poverty rate among part-time workers in 2009 could be looked at as an indicator of the quality (and quantity) of today’s jobs, which fail to provide economic security to workers in the form of adequate compensation, sufficient hours, and job security. 

If anything these national numbers are an official wake-up call: for work supports and wage supplements like the EITC in the short-term (read: extend tax cuts for the middle class), and more thoughtful, regionally-based strategies about how to create and sustain good jobs in the long-term (from export initiatives in the Midwest, to energy innovation in the Intermountain West, to targeted investments in infrastructure, and beyond). Annual unemployment isn’t expected to decline until 2011, which means poverty rates are not going down anytime soon. A stronger safety net will be critical to boosting family incomes and well-being in the interim.

Later this month, the American Community Survey data will be released. This will give us a more accurate picture of how to take a national dialogue on poverty alleviation, and make it work for the people and communities who need it most.