September 11, 2010; Source: Associated Press | Last week’s unemployment numbers were spun this way and that in order to dampen the political and emotional impact of an unemployment rate increasing to 9.6 percent. It will be harder to spin away from the poverty numbers about to be released by the Census Bureau.
The poverty rate—the proportion of the population below the official poverty level—an income level that is all but impossible to live on ($22,025 for a family of four as of 2008), is expected to increase from 13.2 percent to somewhere between 14.7 percent and 15 percent. We haven’t seen rates like this since Michael Harrington wrote “The Other America” and President Lyndon Johnson launched the war on poverty.
The experts expect child poverty to top 20 percent and the largest increases in poverty occurring in the Detroit, Mich., Modesto, Calif., Cape Coral/Fort Myers, Fla., Los Angeles, and Las Vegas metro areas. Experts also suggest that they don’t think that these increases in poverty would not, according to former Clinton aide William Galston, “constitute a clarion call to action.” And conservative political science professor Lawrence Mead says these numbers would only have a “minimal impact” on the November elections.
Maybe Galston and Mead are right. In President Obama’s September 8 speech in Parma, Ohio on the economy, the words “poverty” and “poor” cannot be found in the 4,800 word text, but “middle class” appears 13 times.
We suspect that there is a Michael Harrington lurking in the nonprofit sector who will remind Democrats and Republicans that 45 million Americans living below the federal poverty level have again become the “other America.” Maybe we’ll have to wait until next year when a revised approach for calculating poverty, which will include rising costs of medical care, transportation, and child care, will lead to an even higher proportion of Americans below the poverty level.—Rick Cohen