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Portrait of U.S. poverty is changing; workers, Latinos hit hard

November 3, 2011 | 12:10 pm

As demonstrations against the unequal distribution of wealth in the United States ratchet up, research provides a statistical look at that distribution: The number of people living in poverty has increased; where the poor live is changing; and even the faces of those struggling to make ends meet are becoming more Latino, elderly and working-class.

Small wonder that the economy remains the top presidential election issue.

Roughly a week before the Census Bureau releases the latest portrait of the nation based on economic data, new reports -- last month from the government and Thursday from the Brookings Institution -- give a dire glimpse of what can be expected. The number of people living in poverty is growing, encompassing all segments of society except for the very rich, the reports say. Further, poverty is  spreading out of traditional areas.

“The slower economic growth of the 2000s, followed by the worst downturn in decades, led to increases in neighborhoods of extreme poverty once again throughout the nation, particularly in suburban and small metropolitan communities and in the Midwest,” according to the Brookings report, prepared by Elizabeth Kneebone, Carey Nadeau and Alan Berube.

The report is an analysis based on the most recent census data which found that the population of poor people grew by 12.3 million in the last decade, increasing the number of Americans in poverty to an all-time high of 46.2 million. By the end of the decade, a record 15.3% of Americans lived below the poverty line, $22,314 for a family of four in 2010.

Even though poverty is at record deep levels, the distribution was far from equal either in geography, income or ethnicity.

A struggling manufacturing economy helped contribute to a near-doubling of concentrated poverty in traditional Rust Belt areas around the Great Lakes, such as Detroit, and Toledo, Youngstown and Dayton, Ohio. Meanwhile, concentrated poverty areas increased by about a third in Southern metro areas including El Paso; Baton Rouge, La.; and Jackson, Miss.

The proportion of poor people in large metropolitan areas who lived in high-poverty neighborhoods jumped from 11.2% in 2000 to 15.1% last year, according to Brookings, a nonprofit public policy think tank. The biggest growth in high-poverty areas is occurring in newer Sun Belt metro areas such as Las Vegas and parts of Florida, hit hard by collapsing home prices and rising unemployment.

Almost half of those living below the poverty line, or about 20.5 million Americans (6.7% of the total U.S. population), were classified as the poorest of the poor, living at less than 50% of the poverty line. In 2010, that meant an individual income of $5,570 or less. That 6.7% figure was the highest level in the 35 years such records have been kept, according to the Census Bureau.

The faces of the poor are also expected to change when the new census data are released next week. The new data will include details on who receives non-cash help, such as food stamps, and it will take into account typical spending on such things as healthcare and commuting rather than just taxable income.

That means that larger numbers of the elderly, who pay more for medical costs even if they have insurance, will likely be among the poor. Further, more working-class people will find themselves categorized as poor because expenses such as baby-sitting and commuting will now be added to the computations.

Those changes will also likely push Latinos into the lead as the poorest ethnic group, because many new immigrants are reluctant or unable to apply for government benefits that help those who are U.S. citizens living in poverty.


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Photo: A man walks down a street in Reading, Pa., last month,  collecting cans.  Reading, a city that once boasted numerous industries and the nation's largest railroad company, has recently been named America's poorest city over 65,000 population. Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images