Monday, February 26, 2007

The Poor Are Getting Poorer

So suggests a new McClatchy Newspapers analysis of the 2005 Census:

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.

A deeply ironic use of the term "unusual economic expansion"? An expansion which increases the number of the very poor, hardly budges the earnings of most of the remaining workers, but allows the profits to skyrocket deserves a funnier name. Perhaps something honoring the tax cuts to the wealthy would do. Taxcutpansion?

The topic is anything but funny, and though economists can argue about how well the Census figures measure poverty it is clear that deep poverty has risen and that many more are falling through the cracks in the floorboards of our welfare system:

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 poverty.

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 nations.

That is one international competition the U.S. probably doesn't want to win.