A Census Bureau report released today has confirmed what many of us already suspected: poverty is skyrocketing in the United States. 15 percent of Americans are living below the poverty line. To put that number into perspective, 15 percent amounts to 46.2 million people, the “highest number in the 52 years the Census Bureau has been tracking it,” according to a Census Bureau staff person quoted in the New York Times.
Other indicators point to the same overall trend. Median household income is down, especially for those at the bottom of the income ladder. Inequality is up, with the gap between the 10th and 90th income percentile now the highest on record. Nearly one in six Americans lacks health insurance.
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities president Robert Greenstein helpfully reminds us that, dismal as these numbers are, “level of hardship would have been much worse if not for key federal programs such as unemployment insurance, the Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps, and Medicaid.”
As the debate in Washington over deficit reduction intensifies, Greenstein stresses the importance of protecting programs such as these. Don’t be fooled by politicians who insist that slashing programs that help the poor is the only way to get our fiscal house in order. The truth is that, while such cuts are indeed one means of reducing the deficit, there are by no means the only effective means. Greenstein explains:
Policymakers can choose a different path, as the three major federal deficit-reduction packages of the last two decades — those in 1990, 1993, and 1997 — demonstrate. Those measures reduced poverty and inequality even as they shrank deficits substantially, as a result of increases in the EITC (in the 1990 and 1993 packages) and food stamps (in the 1993 package), the creation of CHIP (in the 1997 package), and the protection of low-income assistance generally. The United States already has higher degrees of poverty and inequality than most other Western industrialized nations. Deficit reduction need not make these problems more severe.
The complete statement from Greenstein is available here.