The Other America, 2005

Monday, September 19, 2005

"Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope -- some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity."

-- President Lyndon B. Johnson,

State of the Union address, 1964

HURRICANE KATRINA, and the accompanying coverage of the overwhelmingly poor and black evacuees hit hardest by the storm, has rekindled the national debate about poverty and race, offering a sobering reminder, four decades later, that President Lyndon B. Johnson's "unconditional war on poverty in America" is far from over. That's valuable: Poverty has hardly been a front-burner issue for years, and for President Bush to speak, as he has in recent days, of the nation's "legacy of inequality" and its "duty to confront this poverty with bold action" is a welcome development. But a broad look at poverty in America presents a more complex picture than the bleak images of those most devastated by Katrina would suggest. It shows significant, and in some cases impressive, progress, blended with the disheartening persistence of poverty among certain populations.

Indeed, the image of hard-core inner-city poverty evoked by the Katrina victims may be misleading. The share of the poor living in neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty (40 percent or more) fell dramatically during the 1990s. Though many Americans hover at the edges of poverty, the number who are permanently trapped is surprisingly low: In the four years between 1996 and 1999, one Census Bureau study found, only 2 percent of the population was poor every month for two years or more -- but 34 percent of the population experienced poverty for at least two months. The overall poverty rate fell from 19 percent in 1964 to 12.7 percent last year, though most of that decline occurred during the first decade. Since 1999, the rate has been edging steadily, and disturbingly, upward.

At the same time, the creation and expansion of government programs such as food stamps, Medicaid, housing subsidies and the earned-income tax credit have made the America of 2005 a far less harsh place for the poor than the America of 1964. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities concluded in a recent report that such programs "cut the number of poor Americans nearly in half . . . and dramatically reduced the severity of poverty for those who remain poor." Thanks in large part to government programs such as Social Security, the problem of poverty has been greatly ameliorated among the elderly -- falling last year to an all-time low (9.8 percent). By contrast, the poverty rate among children is higher now (17.8 percent) than it was in the 1970s. That is a matter of serious concern, though one that's mitigated to some extent by the availability of health care and nutrition assistance.

Poverty among African Americans is both greatly improved since Johnson's pledge and intolerably widespread. In 1959, the first year poverty statistics were collected, 55 percent of African Americans were below the poverty line. By 1966, that had fallen to 41.8 percent; it was 24.7 percent last year. (The poverty rate among Hispanics was lower, 21.9 percent.) Some of the most dramatic gains have been made in recent years by black women. Before 1994, well over half of households headed by African American women lived beneath the poverty level; that number has since dropped below 40 percent.

Still, that number remains unacceptable. Unacceptable, too, is the fact that that one-fourth of American blacks, and one in three black children, are living in poverty in 2005.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company