WASHINGTON—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 the 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. 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 for 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.
The share of poor Americans in deep poverty has climbed slowly but steadily over the last three decades. But since 2000, the number of severely poor 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."
The growth, which leveled off in 2005, in part reflects how hard it is for low-skilled workers to earn their way out of poverty in an unstable 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.
About one in three severely poor people are under 17, and nearly two out of three are female. Female-headed families with children account for a large share of the severely poor.
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.
Severe poverty is most pronounced 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 meatpacking, food processing and agriculture.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHICS (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20070222 POVERTY primer, 20070222 POVERTY states
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