News Release

Roots of Record Poverty


The Census Bureau released the annual poverty numbers today.

Author of Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy and the Poor in Twentieth Century U.S. History, O’Connor said today: “It was not too long ago in our history that news of 40-million plus in poverty spurred a call to concerted political action, and to a War on Poverty built on full employment, living wages, investments in educational and economic opportunities, and participatory democracy. The War on Poverty eventually came to encompass a wide range of initiatives that last to this day, and that continue to provide basic social protections and services, including Head Start, Medicare and Medicaid, community-based health centers, and Food Stamps (now known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP).

“More controversially, it provided federal funding for local community action programs that aimed to give poor people a voice in the distribution of resources and access to civil rights and employment opportunities. And it created an opening for a variety of grassroots and policy reform efforts to break down race- and gender-biased barriers to New Deal social welfare and collective bargaining rights. By the early 1970s, officially measured poverty had been cut in half, from a high point of 22.4 percent in 1959 to a low of 11.1 percent in 1973.

“Now, according to Census Bureau reports, poverty has risen to near-record highs, with 46 million people falling below the official poverty line, and poverty rates at 15 percent. Real median income fell by 1.5 percent from 2010 to 2011, continuing its steep decline since 2007 (8.1 percent), capping more than a decade of decline from its high point in 1999.

“These numbers stem from decades’-long economic and political transformations that sent poverty rates skyward well before the devastating impact of the Great Recession of 2007 set in, and that create new, but hardly impossible, challenges for anti-poverty strategies today: growing proportions of jobs that don’t provide benefits or pay a living wage; widespread working and middle-class insecurity; the persistent wage and job discrimination facing women even as they assume greater responsibilities as sole or primary family breadwinners and care providers; and a vastly eroded system of social protections, from collective bargaining rights and minimum wage to basic income supports.

“Above all, today’s anti-poverty strategy faces the challenge of rising inequality, steeped in policies and economic strategies that continue to concentrate the benefits of economic growth, and now of economic recovery, at the very top while leaving the vast majority of Americans in place or falling behind. This means looking beyond the fundamentals of full employment and reinvestments to promote growth and opportunity. Those steps are absolutely vital, as is shoring up our shredded safety net. But we also need to generate a longer range program of economic development and restructuring that reverses the long-range trend toward inequality, distributes wealth more equitably, redresses the imbalance between finance and more socially productive sectors of the economy, and reasserts the achievement of shared working- as well as middle-class prosperity as a legitimate aim of social and economic policy.”