Poverty Figures Make the Case for a Stronger Safety Net

The numbers are bad enough: 14.3 percent of Americans or 43.6 million people live in poverty, according to data released yesterday by the U.S. Census Bureau. But several analyses out today show that the headlines on poverty hide even deeper problems. The  statistics prove we desperately need a strong safety net to keep more people from becoming poor.

If you are a person of color or jobless, the statistics are devastating. Median per capita income for whites was $30,941, down 0.8 percent from a year earlier, while median per capita income among blacks was two-thirds less, at $18,135, down 4.4 percent from last year. The widest racial gap is between black and Asian households. Black-led households make less than half the median income that Asian households do.

AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker says:

This is another stark indicator of why it is so critical and urgent that we put America back to work, with good jobs with decent pay and benefits.  It is not acceptable that more than 43 million Americans are living in poverty and  20.7 percent  of our children are. Poverty hurts our nation economically, it causes families to be hungry and  hopeless. The AFL-CIO will continue to stand with and fight along side of all who pursue the goal of eliminating poverty in this country.

The unemployed also need help badly. An analysis by the nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) shows unemployment insurance helped stave off poverty for another 3.3 million people. CBPP Executive Director Robert Greenstein says:

Poverty would have risen much higher without the temporary expansions in unemployment insurance benefits provided by the Recovery Act and other legislation. Key forms of federal assistance—including additional weeks of unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed— are slated to expire by the end of this year. If Congress fails to extend these measures and unemployment remains high, poverty and hardship almost certainly will climb still higher next year.

These figures are clear evidence that the nation needs a stronger safety net for as long as it takes to get the unemployment rate back to reasonable levels, says Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. A strengthened safety net will not only aid families in need but also support the recovery by maintaining the purchasing power of these families, helping to create jobs which are a far better antidote to poverty than most social welfare programs.