Grim expectations for report on poverty in United States

By Hope Yen and Liz Sidoti
Sunday, September 12, 2010

The number of people in the United States who are living in poverty is on track for a record increase on President Obama's watch, with the ranks of working-age poor approaching 1960s levels that led to the national war on poverty.

Census figures for 2009 - the recession-ravaged first year of Obama's presidency - are to be released this week, and demographers expect grim findings.

The expected poverty-rate increase - from 13.2 percent to about 15 percent - would be another blow to Democrats struggling to persuade voters to keep them in power. Midterm congressional elections are only weeks away.

Interviews with six demographers who track poverty trends found wide consensus that 2009 figures will probably show a significant rate increase to the range of 14.7 percent to 15 percent.

Should those estimates hold true, some 45 million people in this country, or more than one in seven, were poor last year. It would be the highest single-year increase since the government began calculating poverty figures in 1959. The previous high was in 1980, when the rate jumped 1.3 percentage points to 13 percent during the energy crisis.

Among the working population ages 18 to 64, demographers expect a rise beyond 12.4 percent, up from 11.7 percent. That would make it the highest since at least 1965, when Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson launched the war on poverty that expanded the federal government's role in social welfare programs from education to health care.

Demographers also are confident the report will show:

l Child poverty increased from 19 percent to more than 20 percent.

l Blacks and Latinos were disproportionately hit, based on their higher rates of unemployment.

l Metropolitan areas that posted the largest gains in poverty included Modesto, Calif.; Detroit; Cape Coral-Fort Myers, Fla.; Los Angeles; and Las Vegas.

Experts say a jump in the poverty rate could mean that the liberal viewpoint - social constraints prevent the poor from working - will gain steam over the conservative position that the poor have opportunities to work but choose not to because they get too much help.

To Douglas Besharov, a University of Maryland public-policy professor, the big question is whether there's anything more to do to help impoverished families.

Last year's forecasts are largely based on historical data and the unemployment rate, which climbed to 10.1 percent in October to post a record one-year gain.

The projections partly rely on a methodology by Rebecca Blank, a poverty expert who now oversees the census. She estimated last year that poverty would hit about 14.8 percent if unemployment reached 10 percent.

A formula by Richard Bavier, a former analyst with the White House Office of Management and Budget who has had high rates of accuracy over the past decade, predicts poverty will reach 15 percent. That would put the rate at the highest level since 1993. The all-time high was 22.4 percent in 1959, the first year the government began tracking poverty. It dropped to a low of 11.1 percent in 1973 after Johnson's war on poverty but has since fluctuated in the range of 12 to 14 percent.

Beginning next year, the government plans to publish supplemental poverty figures that are expected to show an even higher number of people in poverty than previously known. The figures will take into account the rising costs of medical care, transportation and child care, a change analysts believe will add to the ranks of both senior citizens and working-age people in poverty.

- Associated Press

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