MEDIA CONTACT: Virginia Rutter
Associate Professor of Sociology
Framingham State University
Board Member, Council on Contemporary Families
Retailers report that this year’s post-Thanksgiving shopping weekend broke all previous records, raising predictions of “the best holiday shopping season ever.” Yet the number of people living in poverty has also broken all previous records – 46.2 million people, the highest number ever recorded and still rising despite the fact that the National Bureau of Economic Research declared the recession over in June 2009. Meanwhile, wealth and income inequality have reached highs not seen in almost a century.
How do we make sense of these seemingly contradictory trends? Some experts claim that government figures greatly overestimate poverty; others counter that they greatly underestimate it, especially for the elderly. Still others argue that poverty in America does not involve outright deprivation, since poor Americans own more amenities, such as television sets and refrigerators, than many middle-class people in other parts of the world.
In a new briefing paper prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families, sociologist Philip N. Cohen of the University of North Carolina explains recent changes in poverty and in income insecurity among the non-poor. Among the report’s findings:
- New measurement techniques reveal that traditional poverty figures have underestimated the extent of severe poverty among the elderly but over-estimated the amount among children. Nevertheless, a report released last week by the Census Bureau showed an increase in poverty for school-age children since 2010: 653 counties saw a significant increase in poverty for children ages 5 to 17 in families, while only eight counties saw a significant decrease.
- It’s true that most Americans have higher living standards than their counterparts in Latin America, Africa, and Eastern Europe. But the U.S. has a higher poverty rate than all but 1 of the Western European, Nordic, and Anglophone countries. In fact, the U.S. poverty rate for children is more than twice as high as that for 8 of those countries.
- An even larger number of people than formerly thought – 51 million – have incomes less than 50 percent above the poverty line, making them vulnerable to frequent short-term spells below the poverty line when their work hours are cut back or they have unexpected expenses.
- And short-terms spells of poverty involve very real deprivation, including hunger and untreated illness. As Cohen argues, the issue is not whether a family HAS a refrigerator so much as how often the electricity is turned off for failure to pay the utility bill or the fridge sits empty because there isn’t enough money to pay for food on top of heat.
The Council on Contemporary Families is a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to providing the press and public with the latest research and best-practice findings about American families. Our members include demographers, economists, family therapists, historians, political scientists, psychologists, social workers, sociologists, as well as other family social scientists and practitioners.
Founded in 1996 and now based in the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Miami, the Council’s mission is to enhance the national understanding of how and why contemporary families are changing, what needs and challenges they face, and how these needs can best be met. To fulfill that mission, the Council holds annual conferences, open to the public, and issues periodic briefing papers and fact sheets.
Topics: Economic Inequality