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Poverty in the United States remains high, median income stagnant

Poverty in the United States remained high and median income stayed stagnant in 2012, according to data released Tuesday from the Census Bureau.
Poverty in the United States remained high and median income stayed stagnant in 2012, according to data released Tuesday from the Census Bureau.

Poverty in the United States remained high while median income stayed stagnant in 2012, according to data released Tuesday from the Census Bureau. The poverty rate was 15 percent, which was unchanged from 2011 but still 2.5 percentage points higher than its pre-recession levels. Median household income held steady from the previous year at $51,017.

The positive news is that for the first time in five years, the percentage of the population in poverty did not increase and the median income did not go down. But even as America shows some signs of recovering from the recession, the poverty rate is remaining persistently high, with 46.5 million people living at or below the poverty line, 16.1 million of whom were children.

Bill Tibbitts, the associate director at Crossroads Urban Center, a Utah nonprofit agency that provides services for low-income people, said the Census data is in line with what he has seen over the past year.

"We've experienced pretty steady use here in our food pantry," Tibbitts said. "I'm not surprised to hear that for people on the bottom, the recession is continuing."

Continued hardship

The Census data revealed that for the nearly one in seven Americans living in poverty, the economic recovery has not reached their pocketbooks. While real GDP has increased more than 9 percent since 2009, the percentage of people living in poverty has remained more than 15 percent from 2010-12, which is the highest the poverty rate has been since 1993.

"The poverty and income numbers are a metaphor for the entire economy. Everything’s on hold, but at a bad level," said Ron Haskins, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, a policy think tank, in a press release. "The recession may be over, but try to tell that to these struggling families. Don’t expect things to change until the American economy begins to generate more jobs."

The Western part of the U.S. was the only area to show statistically significant improvement in its poverty rate — declining to 15.1 percent from 15.8 percent in 2011. However, in the South, the number in of people living in poverty increased to 19.1 million, up from 18.4 million in 2011.

The Census data also showed that while income inequality did not change substantially between 2011 and 2012, it has grown since 1999. The report found that since 1999, income at the 10th percentile has declined 14.2 percent and at the 50th percentile has declined 9 percent, but income at the 90th percentile has only declined 1.7 percent.

Tibbitts said that people with more education and marketable skills are more likely to get hired for jobs and see the benefits of an economic upturn more quickly. "But for people who are in poverty, they’re often fired first and hired last," he said. "So it often takes longer for an economic recovery to reach the people on the bottom."

Impact on children

The Census report also found children continue to be the age group most affected by poverty in America, and the younger a child is, the more likely he or she is to be living in poverty. The percentage of children under 18 living in poverty remained near 2011 levels at 21.8 percent, with more than one in four children under age 5 living in poverty. While children are only 23.7 percent of the total population, they make up 34.6 percent of the people in poverty.

"If you look at the data for programs that help low-income people in general, the biggest people of category served is children," Tibbitts said. "Families with children disproportionately fall below poverty line. Children are expensive, and it takes a real commitment to raise kids."

Caroline Fichtenberg, director of research at the Children’s Defense Fund, a child advocacy nonprofit group, said the biggest factor in the high poverty rate among children is living in single-parent households, where one breadwinner is attempting to support a family. The Census report found that 47.2 percent of related children in families with a single woman in charge of the household were in poverty, while only 11.1 percent of related children of married couples were in poverty.

While most children in poverty have a parent who works, often the money brought in is not enough to cover basic needs, according to Fichtenberg. And research shows the economic impact of children growing up in poverty can be long-lasting. The National Center for Children in Poverty, part of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, found that economic hardship among children has been linked to "a myriad of adverse educational, health, and other outcomes for children that limit future productivity."

"All of us suffer when children grow up in poverty," Fichtenberg said. "Because children are adults of tomorrow. So when they are not giving the opportunity to grow up with access to food and education, it hurts all of society."