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What is poverty? Think beyond the official number

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Jeremy Hobson: This week we are launching our new Wealth and Poverty Desk, and we’ll start with the numbers. The poverty line is a little more than $22,000 a year for a family of four. More than 15 percent of Americans fall below that line.

Marketplace’s Mitchell Hartman takes a look behind those numbers.

Mitchell Hartman: Here’s one of the sounds of poverty in America: A family shopping trip.

Tamara Johnson: You like any of those shirts?

 To the relief mission at the local church.

Johnson: No? Just look at them and see if you like them first.

Tamara Johnson’s 41, from Rialto, Calif. She lives with the 6-year-old daughter she’s trying to interest in one of those free T-shirts, or maybe a warm coat. Johnson’s also getting a box of donated food — rice, beans, canned vegetables.

Johnson: It’s a struggle, just a little bit.

Hartman: And are you working right now?

Johnson: Yes, I am a program manager at Pomona Alcohol and Drug Recovery Center.

Hartman: So you’re a supervisor?

Johnson: I’m making really good money. But still it’s not enough in today’s economy.

And that “good money”? Johnson told me she makes around $3,000 a month, which would put her a little above two times the official poverty rate. Even so, with rent, utilities, and transportation, she said she still couldn’t make it from paycheck to paycheck.

Economist Randy Albelda at UMass Boston offers another definition of poverty: one that better suits people like Johnson.

Randy Albelda: You’re poor when you can’t buy what you need. When you cannot afford to pay for your rent, you can’t afford to buy food, you can’t afford clothing.

Many Americans cycle through poverty at some point without staying there — when they’re in school, or out of work for a spell.

The bigger problem, says Albelda, is those who are stuck long term with an income at the poverty line.

Albelda: A single mom, who also has a lot of relatives who are also low-wage or low-income, especially if she works and she’s got young children, $24,000 may not even come close to the sets of costs she would face, even being as frugal as she possibly could be.

Albelda says that working mother courts disaster every time she goes to work.

Albelda: A car breaking down can have enormous consequences — like losing your job.

This is what life is like for more and more Americans after the recession: they’re just one unlucky step from taking an economic fall.

I’m Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace.

Hobson: Tomorrow our Wealth and Poverty launch continues with a look at the middle class.

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