“Startling” number of “near poor” in the United States

The Census Bureau released figures recently showing a growing number of Americans living below the poverty line. But the figures also showed a population increase in another group: the “near poor.”

When the Census Bureau this month released a new measure of poverty, meant to better count disposable income, it began altering the portrait of national need. Perhaps the most startling differences between the old measure and the new involves data the government has not yet published, showing 51 million people with incomes less than 50 percent above the poverty line. That number of Americans is 76 percent higher than the official account, published in September. All told, that places 100 million people — one in three Americans — either in poverty or in the fretful zone just above it…

The Census Bureau, which published the poverty data two weeks ago, produced the analysis of those with somewhat higher income at the request of The New York Times. The size of the near-poor population took even the bureau’s number crunchers by surprise.

“These numbers are higher than we anticipated,” said Trudi J. Renwick, the bureau’s chief poverty statistician. “There are more people struggling than the official numbers show.”…

Of the 51 million who appear near poor under the fuller measure, nearly 20 percent were lifted up from poverty by benefits the official count overlooks. But more than half were pushed down from higher income levels: more than eight million by taxes, six million by medical expenses, and four million by work expenses like transportation and child care.

It would be interesting to know more about this group of “near poor”: is this a consistent position they hold in society? Is there much downward or upward  mobility from this group? Is this a group that grows dramatically in tough economic times for the whole country? The story makes it sound like this is a group that could easily go either way: a better job opportunity might push a household upward while a large medical bill or the need to replace an aging car might push them back much closer to the poverty line. And after knowing more, what policies would help improve the lot of this group – jobs, education, a bigger safety net?

I wonder additionally how much of this story is really that Census Bureau researchers are “surprised” by these findings. This is what the headline emphasizes. “Surprised” suggests that no one saw this coming. Should they have been surprised? After all, the median household income in the United States is around $50,000, suggesting that there are lots of people not too far from the official poverty line. Past context is important here to know how much larger this group is now compared to past time periods.

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