As poverty surged last year to its highest level since 1993, median household income declined, leaving the typical American household earning less in inflation-adjusted dollars than it did in 1997.
Ominously, several analysts said, unemployment is projected to remain unusually high for the foreseeable future, meaning that the nation is probably in for an extended period of rising poverty and declining income.
“Not only have we experienced severe deterioration in recent years, but knowing how weak the outlook is makes this report even more ugly,” said Heidi Shierholz, a labor economist at the Economic Policy Institute. “We are staring high unemployment in the face for years to come.”
Last year, 46.2 million Americans lived below the poverty line — $22,314 a year for a family of four — marking the fourth year in a row that poverty has increased.
Locally, one in five District residents was living in poverty. In Maryland and Virginia, the poverty rate was about 11 percent. Since 2007, the poverty rate had increased by about two percentage points in all three jurisdictions.
“I’ve got people that are living in the woods. I’ve got people that are sharing rooms. So, honestly, that doesn’t surprise me,” said Rob Paxton, director of Safe Haven, a day shelter for the homeless in Fairfax County.
The economic turmoil has pummeled children, for whom the poverty rate last year — 22 percent — was at the highest level since 1993. The rate for black children climbed to nearly 40 percent, and more than a third of Hispanic children lived in poverty, the Census Bureau reported. The rate for white children was reported as above 12 percent.
With their surging population, Hispanics accounted for 37 percent of the children in poverty, a share that had increased substantially since the recession took hold in 2007, said William Frey, a Brookings Institution demographer.
“We had almost 1 million more children fall into poverty between 2009 and 2010,” said Catherine V. Beane, policy director at the Children’s Defense Fund. “We also have seen a continued increase in the number of children who live in extreme poverty,” for instance, a family of four living on $30 a day.
Maxine Thomas, who lives with two daughters and three grandsons in a mobile home in Elkridge, calls poverty a fact of life. During a long stretch of unemployment, her electricity was turned off this summer for two months. But her luck recently turned for the better. A church group helped get her electricity restored, and she landed a part-time a job at a supermarket. It pays $10 an hour, better than her last job but barely enough for her to squeeze by.