Poverty and America: The Four Lost Decades (from The New Yorker Magazine)

From an article by the New Yorker’s 

The latest poverty and income figures came out this week, and boy are they disturbing. It’s not so much the headline figures, which have been well covered in the Times and elsewhere:

46 million Americans living under the poverty line in 2010, the highest number since the Commerce Department started collecting the figures back in 1959. That’s a horrible statistic. (Amy Davidson responded on Tuesday.)

But it’s not too surprising since we’ve been through the deepest recession since the nineteen-thirties, and getting thrown out of work is a primary cause of poverty. (Plus, the population grows every year. If the proportion of people in poverty stays the same, you’d expect the absolute numbers to grow over time.)

It’s not even the fact that median household income—the income of the American household in the middle of the income distribution—is now back to the level it was at in 1996: about $49,500 in inflation-adjusted dollars.

To be sure, that is a very alarming fact. But I think most people have already cottoned on to the idea that we have been through a “lost decade.” To get the picture, you just have to look at the stock market or your last paycheck.

Also, the figures for household income need to be treated with a bit of caution, since they aren’t adjusted for changing family sizes. As time goes on, more people are getting married later or not getting married at all. This means there are more single-income households, which obviously earn less than two-income households. This biases the figures somewhat.

(The story of where the poverty line came from and how it’s derived is actually pretty interesting. If you want to read more about it, I wrote an entire magazine piece about the subject back in 2006.) Still, even making the necessary adjustments, it’s pretty clear that the typical American family has made little or no progress since the late nineteen-nineties.

Read the full story at the New Yorker Magazine Online (September 15, 2011).



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