Number of Americans in Poverty Highest in 51 Years

Homeless WomanToday the Census Bureau released the 2009 poverty data which shows that the number of people in poverty in 2009 is the largest number in the 51 years for which poverty estimates are available. There were 43.6 million people in poverty in 2009, up from 39.8 million in 2008 — the third consecutive annual increase. The nation's official poverty rate in 2009 was 14.3 percent, up from 13.2 percent in 2008. The data also show that nearly 21% percent of children, or roughly 15.5 million, were in poverty in 2009 versus 19% in 2008, or approximately 14.1 million in 2008.

Living in poverty means deprivation and hardship. For a family of four, life at the poverty level means trying to provide children with a roof over their heads, clothing, adequate health care and a nutritious diet on an annual income of $21,947.

The 2009 poverty data grimly illustrates the heavy toll that the recession has taken on the American people. The increase in poverty is made even more painful by the fact that it follows an economic recovery that utterly failed to reduce poverty--indeed, it was the first economic recovery on record where the poverty level at the peak of the recovery (2007) was actually higher than it was in the previous recession (2001).  

The unprecedented increases in poverty and child poverty are consistent with other data that show the severity of the current recession. For example, the unemployment rate in the United States doubled between 2007 (when the recession began) and 2009, going from 4.6 to 9.3 percent.  Also during this time, the number of Americans receiving food stamps increased by 33 percent, to over 35 million people.

The 2009 poverty data calls for two policy responses. First, Congress should extend or make permanent several key pieces of the Recovery Act aimed at low- and moderate-income households that otherwise will expire this year. Second, Congress should not extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy that are due to expire this year.

Continuing Recovery Act Provisions

The 2009 poverty data demonstrate the need to continue several provisions of the Recovery Act that help low- and moderate-income people make ends meet and begin to rebuild assets, while also stimulating the economy through consumer spending:

  1. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) emergency contingency fund (ECF) must be extended for one year. This fund has created 240,000 jobs in 37 states, making it the most successful direct job creation initiative since the Great Depression. It will expire at the end of September unless Congress takes action.

  2. The 2009 improvements to the Child Tax Credit due to expire at the end of the year must be made permanent. This credit provides assistance for parents in helping to defray the costs of having a child such as child care costs. The Recovery Act allowed low-income working families to count more of their earnings below $13,000 in calculating the value of their Child Tax Credit. These improvements have a dramatic effect for low-income families--for example, a parent working for the minimum wage and raising two kids saw her credit increase from $250 to $1,725. These changes will expire at the end of the year unless Congress takes action.

  3. Similarly, the 2009 improvements to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) due to expire at the end of the year must be made permanent.  The EITC supports low- and moderate-income working people by providing a refundable tax credit.  These credits were expanded to help families deal with the recession. Specifically, the Recovery Act provided a temporary increase in the EITC for taxpayers with three or more qualifying children. The maximum EITC for this new category is $5,657. The Recovery Act also temporarily increased the beginning point of the phase out range for the credit. Since these credits help 13 million children currently living in poverty and millions of working families, Congress must ensure that these changes are made permanent.

  4. Extra weeks of unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed will expire on November 30, and it is clear that they too need to be extended.

The Bush Tax Cuts for the Wealthy

The unprecedented level of poverty in the U.S. is further evidence that the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy should not be extended beyond the end of this year, when they are scheduled to expire.

The income gap between rich and poor--now at its widest since the Great Depression--was exacerbated by the Bush tax cuts. Households in the bottom fifth of the income spectrum received tax cuts averaging $29, while the top 1 percent of households received tax cuts averaging $41,077.

In addition, a recent report by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) concluded that extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy was the worst available policy option for stimulating the economy since wealthy people are much more likely to save their tax cuts than spend them. The CBO found that creating a temporary jobs tax credit or extending unemployment insurance benefits would generate three to five times more economic growth and create four to six times more jobs than extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.

The increase in poverty and child poverty between 2008 and 2009 is further evidence that the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy should not be extended.

Note: On September 28, the American Community Survey data will be released. This data will provide more specific information about poverty levels in each state including, among other things, how median income differs by race/ethnicity, gender, family structure and education in each state and how that compares to the national average. Look for our blog’s analysis of this data as soon as it is released.

This blog post was co-authored by Dan Lesser.


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