Executive Summary

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Executive Summary

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.

Stephanie Coontz

Co-Chair and Director of Research and Public Education

Council on Contemporary Families

Poverty, Hardship and Families: How Many People Are Poor, And What Does Being Poor In America Really Mean
Philip N. Cohen, Ph.D.

Professor of Sociology

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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