Why the annual poverty numbers matter

A man sits on a sidewalk.

Sarah Gardner: A new census report out today has the latest poverty figures. More than 46 million Americans were living in poverty in 2011. About the same as the year before -- a surprise to many economists, who'd expected the poverty rate to go up.

From our Wealth and Poverty Desk, Shereen Marisol Meraji reports.


Shereen Marisol Meraji: The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank is a mad house. Fork lift drivers zig-zag in and out of the warehouse balancing stacked pallets with cans of whole tomatoes and peaches. Michael Flood runs the place.

Michael Flood: Our distribution last year was up 80 percent compared to the pre-recession days.

And he says there's no sign demand will go down. The poverty rate is holding steady at 15%, same as last year, according to the new Census data.

Sheldon Danziger: It's the only time that we as a nation focus on the poor.

Sheldon Danziger directs the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan, he says it's important to focus on the poverty numbers because they show that even during a recovery, rising economic tides don't lift all boats. Danziger adds that:

Danziger: If deficit reduction frenzy leads to cutting the earned income tax credit, cutting back unemployment insurance, cutting back food stamps...

...Even more Americans could fall into poverty. Robert Rector from the Heritage Foundation agrees that we should focus on these statistics, but in a different way.

Robert Rector: I do think we should be very much talking about the growth of the welfare state and the growth of the people dependent on welfare.

Rector believes poverty is a drag on the economy because, he says, the government spends a trillion dollars on programs that benefit the poor and nothing is changing.

That debate is taking place back at the L.A. Regional food bank, too. Scott Wilderman is picking up food for his church's pantry. He says it's one thing for the church to help the poor but:

Scott Wilderman: Food stamps is socialism and we're not a socialist country.

Inside, LaRonda Simes, who has a full-time job there, says without government child care subsidies:

LaRonda Simes: I will be in a shelter or somewhere because I wouldn't be able to make rent or to make gas to come to work.

She says she's been poor -- and never wants to be there again.

I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji for Marketplace.

About the author

Shereen Marisol Meraji is a reporter for Marketplace’s Wealth & Poverty Desk.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...