When we devised the formula we use to determine poverty in the United States, it was 1964. President Lyndon Johnson had just taken a tour of communities in Appalachia without electricity, running water, or sewage systems. Indeed, even some urban neighborhoods lacked that basic infrastructure. There was no Medicare system—so the elderly were very poor and largely uninsured—and consumer goods for the middle class, like televisions and vehicles, were pretty new. Food took up much more of a family’s budget, and housing took up much less.
The world was incredibly different. But the way we measure poverty remains the same. We also still imagine poverty looks the way it did in 1964. In reality, economic hardship is much more commonplace, and its appearance is more subtle. Its effects, however, are no less devastating.
This week, when the United States Census Bureau released its poverty data for the year 2013, it showed the first significant decline in poverty since the Great Recession hit: down from 15 percent to 14.5. Greeted more cheerily by economic observers was the news that child poverty had made its biggest drop in years: down almost 2 whole percentage points. It was better news than observers expected.
It’s all relative, though, and enthusiasm was qualified. These numbers are still higher than they were before the recession. In a statement, Robert Greeinstein of the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities, a left-of-center think tank in Washington, wrote that if current trends continue, it would take until 2020 for poverty to fall to its 2000 level.
The downward trend is good, as is the fact that fewer families dwell in the type of deep, intergenerational poverty that most of us might stereotype as “true” poverty. But even so, the experience of poverty is still a big problem. Why? For many reasons, but most of all because politicians on both sides of the aisle believe that while Americans should make most of their money from working, they don’t want to ensure that people make a livable wage when they do so.
More and more Americans have jobs since the economy started to rebound. But many of them are still poor. The 1990s were a time when employment was high, and we could cut welfare rolls and push people into work. The 2000s and 2010s, though, have been characterized by crappy jobs with paltry pay, and by a government ever more reluctant to spend any of its tax dollars on people at the bottom end of the income ladder. We’re losing decades, and a generation.
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