us poverty rate on increase
The number of people living in poverty in the U.S. has reached the highest level since the Census Bureau began tracking poverty in 1959. Image: Thinkstock

More people live in poverty in the U.S. than at any time since the government started keeping track 51 years ago. A Census Bureau report said that 43 million Americans lived in poverty in 2009. That’s 14. 3 percent of the population, a jump from 13.2 percent in 2008. Republicans are already using the new poverty statistics to criticize the Obama administration as midterm elections draw near. A closer look at the poverty rate over the last decade shows the GOP is complicit in causing the spike. Liberals say the poverty rate underestimates the true level of economic misery. Conservatives say it exaggerates the problem. Next year, the government will start considering additional factors in an effort to get a more accurate reading of poverty in the U.S.

Poverty rate bad, but could have been worse

The jump in the poverty rate was expected. In fact, the Washington Independent reports that demographers expected it to be about 15 percent. A Census Bureau official told CNN that the poverty rate would have been higher if not for a decline in poverty among elderly Americans, which fell to 8.9 percent from 9.7 percent. The poverty threshold, or poverty line, is the minimum income deemed necessary for an adequate standard of living. Considering that standard, the poverty threshold seems overly optimistic. According to the Census Bureau, a family of four is living in poverty with an income of $22,050. A married couple: $14,570. A single individual: $10,830.

Unrealistic poverty thresholds

U.S. poverty thresholds were formulated in the early 1960s based on the minimum a family needs to spend on food. MSNBC reports that experts say current methods of calculating the number of Americans living in poverty fails to consider important factors beyond income. Shawn Fremstad of Center for Economic and Policy Research told MSNBC that current poverty threshold is unrealistically low in terms of what it takes to survive in today’s economy. Starting in 2011, the government plans to formulate additional metrics incorporating factors like tax credits and work expenses to determine poverty thresholds. Fremstad suggested a metric based on median income to show how poor people are doing compared to society at large. Median income in the U.S. was $49,777 in 2009.

Let theĀ  finger pointing begin

Political pundits are saying that the poverty rate is another liability for the Obama administration and Democrats for the November midterm elections. Yet poverty did not fall during the Bush era economic expansion in the 2000s. As reported by the Washington Independent, Rebecca Blank of the Commerce Department said last year in congressional testimony that in the 2001 recession, the poverty rate rose as expected and never came down. The poverty rate rose .08 percent during the the 2000s expansion. A greater share of the U.S. population was poor in 2007 than in 2001. The poverty increases during the great recession came on top of numbers already elevated by eight years of GOP economic policies.

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