More in U.S. plunge deeper into poverty
The ranks of the severely poor are soaring, study finds.
March 1, 2007
By Tony Pugh

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.

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, and 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.

Since 2000, the share of poor Americans in deep poverty 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.”

McClatchy’s review suggests that the rise in the number of severely poor residents isn’t confined to large urban counties but extends to suburban and rural areas.

For Sacramento County, the census estimates that between 60,000 and 76,000 people — roughly 5 percent of the total population — live in deep poverty. County-level data are subject to significant margins of error because of the smaller populations and the smaller geographic areas they cover.

California has an estimated 1.9 million severely poor residents. But the state’s 8 percent growth in the number of severely poor from 2000 to 2005 was one of the nation’s slowest. Only eight states had smaller growth during that time.

The growth nationally, which leveled off in 2005, in part reflects how hard it is for low-skilled workers to earn their way out of poverty in a 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.

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

According to census data, nearly two of three people in severe poverty are white (10.3 million) and 6.9 million are non-Hispanic whites. Severely poor blacks (4.3 million) are more than three times as likely as non-Hispanic whites to be in deep poverty, while extremely poor Hispanics of any race (3.7 million) are more than twice as likely.

The problem of severe poverty is most pronounced in towns 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 agriculture industries.

“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.

Over the past 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.

“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.”

42% – Christians First, Americans Second


Among non-Muslim nations, the United States is the outlier in terms of religious self-identification; about four in ten U.S. adults see themselves as Christians first rather than as Americans first, while an additional 7% say they self-identify as both equally according to the 2006 Pew Global Attitudes survey. In this regard, the views of Americans closely parallel those of French Muslims, 46% of whom think of themselves first in terms of their religion rather than their nationality. By contrast, only a third of German Christians (33%), and fewer than a quarter of British, French and Spanish Christians self-identify primarily with their religion.