Poverty and Education

Recently, I read an incredible critique of Ruby Payne's work on poverty that poked at the language of the culture of poverty that Payne describes throughout her work. I began to buy the argument that the language that Payne uses is too generalized to truly help educators and society meet the needs of kids. This doesn't mean though that I don't see the huge ties between poverty and education. If anything, we are the providers of opportunities to help kids escape poverty or insulate other students from slipping back into poverty. This concept along with the recent information about poverty in the United States has me truly grounded in my role in helping kids. See below for the recent poverty stats....

43.6 Million: Census Declares More Americans are in Poverty than Ever Before
by Claire Lorentzen 09-20-2010

It is the highest number America has ever seen: 43.6 million people are living in poverty in the United States, the wealthiest country in the world. According to new data released yesterday by the Census Bureau, the 2009 U.S. poverty rate was at 14.3 percent, up from 13.2 percent in 2008. Considering that our nation is facing a 10 percent unemployment rate –- a 2.6 percentage increase from 2008 — “The news could have been a lot worse than it actually was,” claimed Under Secretary of Commerce for Economic Affairs Rebecca Blank at a Brookings Institution panel on the Census data last Thursday afternoon. Others at the panel agreed with Blank, while making it clear that regardless of the higher predictions, these statistics yell out for a renewed “war on poverty.”

Here are some statistical highlights from the 2009 Census data:
One in five children live below the poverty line. The poverty rate increased most steeply for children under the age of 19, jumping from a rate of 19.0 percent in 2008 to one of 20.7 percent in 2009.
29.9 percent of female-headed families live below the poverty line. The rate is up 1.2 percent from 2008.
25.3 percent of Hispanics (up from 23.2 percent in 2008) live below the poverty line.
25.8 percent of blacks (up from 24.7 percent in 2008) live below the poverty line.
One in seven (14.3 percent) Americans are in severe economic deprivation.

Just to put the 2009 American poverty rates in some sort of historical perspective: Poverty declined between the years 1993 and
2000, but then increased between 2001 and 2004. While economic deprivation declined slightly again in both 2005 and 2006, it then increased again in 2007 and 2008. Now in 2009, it has once again increased, but by one of the third highest rates since that data was first collected in the 1960s: 1.1 percent.

Where do these numbers come from? How is the poverty rate measured?
Well, the official poverty rate in the U.S. has been defined and measured in the same way for the last 37 years. The measurement sets the poverty threshold equal to three times the subsistence food budget, which was set by the United States Food and Drug Administration and its Economy Food Plan in 1961. Since its introduction in 1963, the measurement has only been updated yearly for inflation, according to the Consumer Price Index. The base poverty threshold was set at three times the subsistence food budget for an individual. This multiplier of three was first chosen because the 1955 census found that, on average, one-third of a family’s budget was spent on food. Whether or not this estimate holds is largely up for debate (and will be discussed in future God’s Politics blogs). The poverty threshold was then adjusted for family size and age. For example in 2008, the threshold for a single individual was $10,991 dollars and for a family of three it was $22,025 dollars.
Then, in order to determine whether or not an individual or a family falls below this threshold, their pre-tax income is accounted for. Pre-tax income includes all pre-tax earnings, Social Security payments (since they are paid in cash — which may help explain why the poverty rate of elderly has not increased). The income measure also does not include any sort of in-kind benefits such as Medicaid, food stamps, as well as out of pocket medical expenses. Pre-tax incomes are also not adjusted for according to geographic location.

If a family’s total pre-tax income is less than the threshold for their family size and respected ages, they are below the poverty line. This is the case for 43.6 million Americans.

Claire Lorentzen is the online editorial assistant at Sojourners.