ARTiFACTs — Census Shows Ranks of Poor Rose by 1.3 Million

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September 3, 2003
Census Shows Ranks of Poor Rose by 1.3 Million
WASHINGTON, Sept. 2 — The number of Americans living below the poverty line increased by more than 1.3 million last year, even though the economy technically edged out of recession during the same period, a Census Bureau report shows.
The spike in economic hardship hit individuals and families alike. The report indicated that the total percentage of people in poverty increased to 12.4 percent from 12.1 percent in 2001 and totaled 34.8 million. At the same time, the number of families living in poverty went up by more than 300,000 in 2002 to 7 million from 6.6 million in 2001.
The number of children in poverty rose by more than 600,000 during the same period to 12.2 million. The rate of increase in children under age 5 jumped a full percentage point to 19.8 percent living below the poverty line from 18.8 percent a year earlier.
“These numbers provide a moving picture of population changes,” said Stephen Buckner, a spokesman for the Census Bureau. “It’s more timely data that should allow decision makers to make more informed judgments.”
The new data, some analysts say, may raise the level of scrutiny on a variety of federal programs like welfare reform and the recently enacted increases in child tax credits, which excluded about 6.5 million low-income working families with children.
Stuart Butler, an economist with the Heritage Foundation, a Washington policy institute, called the data “a fairly predictable product of the slowing economy.”
“The issue is, what do you do to continue to strengthen the economy?” Mr. Butler said. “You take the necessary steps to encourage people to move back into the work force, plus making sure we don’t do anything to weaken the welfare reforms put in place some years ago.”
Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said, “Some people had drawn a Pollyanna-ish conclusion that somehow changes in the welfare system would insulate children from increases in poverty during economic slumps.”
“These new data show that that assumption is flatly incorrect.” Mr. Greenstein said. “It also underscores the mistake in federal tax policies that exclude the very families who are hurting the most.”
The data, released today, is found in the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, a rolling month-to-month sample of the social and economic makeup of 742,000 households in 1,239 counties across the country.
The bureau’s Current Population Survey, to be released at the end of September, still functions as the official barometer for measuring national income and poverty estimates. It is also used by the Labor Department to calculate the monthly unemployment rate. But the American Community Survey, which the Census Bureau began testing nationally in 2000, is eventually intended to replace the census long form in representing the most detailed sample of American households.
Assessed annually, rather than every 10 years like the current long form, the Community Survey, census officials said, should enable policy makers to better determine needs in allocating federal, state and local financing for a variety of services. The American Community Survey also calculates for much smaller geographic areas than the Current Population Survey, allowing more focused analysis.
The adjusted poverty line figures for 2002 have yet to be released. But in 2001, a family of two adults and two children would have to have made less than $17,960 a year to be ranked as living below the poverty level. For a single person under the age of 65 the poverty line in 2001 was roughly $9,200 a year.