Despite a recession and high unemployment rate during the past decade, the percentage of Americans living just above the poverty level has actually decreased since the 1960s — a potential reflection of the surge in the number of people who have slipped below poverty levels since the recession.
The first U.S. Census Bureau report on the near-poor, released Thursday, shows that 14.7 million people, or 4.3 percent, had family incomes between 100 percent and 125 percent of the poverty level, down from 6.3 percent in 1966.
“The percent of people in near-poverty does not fluctuate with business cycles the way poverty does,” said Trudi Renwick, branch chief of the Census Poverty Statistics Branch. “We found that in at least more recent years, the same number of people are coming in and out of living near poverty.”
For those living in or near poverty, educational attainment matters. Those with a high school diploma or less had higher poverty rates than those with some college. About 10 percent of those with less than a high school diploma live just above poverty level, compared with 1.6 percent of college graduates. But in a tough economic climate, and as more people go to college, even degrees may not help: 12 percent of people living near poverty have at least a college degree.
The national poverty rate shot up from about 12 percent before the recession to 15 percent, extending lines at food banks.
Alfonzo Gimenez is 48, divorced, and takes care of a mentally challenged son. He sells cleaning materials and toiletries on the street — mostly products from 99-cent stores — but for almost three years he has come every Thursday to Ananda Marga of L.A., a food pantry near Los Angeles’ Crenshaw and Pico boulevards.
His street-vending business: “Too slow.”
Racial divides are clear with the near-poor. About 76 percent of people living barely above the poverty level are white, slightly below their national representation (79 percent of U.S. residents are white). But even though blacks represent 13.2 percent of the overall population, they make up almost 18 percent of the near-poor.
The poor are more likely to be working or looking for work (47.4 percent) than those just above the poverty line (40.8 percent).
That number could be affected by the growing number of elderly who are scraping by but are not in the labor force, Renwick said.
“The near-poor are more likely to get the earned income tax credit,” she said, pointing out that 20.7 percent of the near-poor are eligible. “Only 16.7 percent of the poor are eligible, partially because of the structure. You need to have earnings in order to qualify.”
The report came out on May 1, International Workers’ Day, with rallies around the world. In Los Angeles, thousands of people arrived downtown for the annual May Day marches to support immigrant rights, closing several streets until evening.
California typically has a higher poverty rate than the nation as a whole, and the majority of the poor live in working families, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Los Angeles County has by far the largest number of poor in the state.
“My biggest concern with the official poverty measure is that it gives a false sense of the poverty needs,” said Beth Mattingly, research consultant at the Center on Poverty and Inequality at Stanford University. “This is still not the story of who’s struggling. It adds to the puzzle.”
The report considers those making between $23,283 (the poverty threshold in 2012 for a family of four) and $29,104 to be near-poor.
Mattingly said those who are making even 150 percent of the official poverty rate (about $35,000) are struggling.
The Census Bureau last year released an alternative way of measuring poverty that includes tax credits and government benefits and takes into account health and child care expenses and housing costs.
This “supplemental poverty measure” showed that California had by far the biggest share of people in poverty: 8.9 million people between 2010 and 2012, much higher than the official count of 6.2 million. The calculations placed California’s poverty rate even higher than the traditionally poorest states, Mississippi and Louisiana.
The new report puts California’s near-poor rate at 5.3 percent, higher than the national rate but below states such as Arkansas, Idaho, Mississippi and Kentucky.
Compton, California, resident Margaret Reed has been coordinating the food bank at Bel-Vue Presbyterian Church near Watts for 22 years. She is seeing more Latino families among the 200 who line up for giveaways every month.
“Most of them are families, single mothers and some single fathers,” said Reed, who bemoans the fact that the church can no longer afford to serve hot meals every once in a while.
“I imagine about half of them are working,” said Bel-Vue Pastor Arthur C. Ross Jr.