2021 update: Half of America in or near poverty

The facts and numbers from numerous sources reflect the reality of deprivation in America, and help to confirm what has been called the "sharpest rise in the U.S. poverty rate since the 1960s."


Poverty, as defined by the World Bank, is a “pronounced deprivation in well-being.” This describes the millions of Americans who are unable to pay for medical treatment; who suffer the stress of delinquent rent and mortgage payments; who see a steady decline of jobs that pay enough to support a family; and who are victims of the surge in drug and alcohol and suicide “deaths of despair” that continue to increase among poor Americans during the COVID-19 crisis.

The facts and numbers from numerous sources reflect the reality of deprivation in America, and help to confirm what has been called the “sharpest rise in the U.S. poverty rate since the 1960s.”

The majority of American households are living paycheck-to-paycheck during the pandemic

The Washington Post summarizes: “According to Nielsen data, the American Payroll Association, CareerBuilder and the National Endowment for Financial Education, somewhere between 50 percent and 78 percent of employees earn just enough money to pay their bills each month….[this was] before the coronavirus pandemic….[since then] the number of first-time unemployment claims has exceeded 1 million per week, an unprecedented number in U.S. history.”

There’s much more evidence of Americans in trouble. An NPR review states that “survey after survey for years has found that most people in the U.S. live paycheck to paycheck.” One of these is a survey reported by CNBC, which concluded that “63 percent of Americans have been living paycheck to paycheck since Covid hit.” Both Schwab’s 2020 Modern Wealth Survey and a recent Harris Poll found that a sizable majority of Americans are suffering financial stress during the pandemic. The American Psychological Association concurs. In Bankrate’s latest polling numbers, 6 out of 10 Americans would be unable to afford an unexpected $1,000 expense.

With month-to-month survival preoccupying most Americans, retirement savings are far beyond reach. Schwab’s Wealth Survey found that Americans need a net worth of $655,000 to be “financially comfortable.” According to Credit Suisse, NOBODY in the bottom half of North America has more than about ONE-TENTH of that retirement amount

Half of American households were even uncertain about FOOD for the holidays. And soon the rent is coming due.

Not enough food! According to the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey for October 14-26, 2020, 56 percent of households with children reported that they were “not very confident” that they would be able to be able to afford food for the holidays. Brookings reports that two in five households with mothers with pre-teen children were food insecure, meaning that “a household has difficulty providing enough food due to a lack of resources.”

And not enough money for rent!

Thankfully, rent and mortgage moratoriums have been extended through the end of March and June, respectively. But then what? Twelve million renters owe an average of $5,600 in back rent and utilities. A $1,400 stimulus payment—or even $5,600 for a family of four—will keep them housed for just a few months.

Over half of Black and Latino families lack the funds to sustain them for three months at a poverty level

According to research at Duke University, 57 percent of Black families with children and 50 percent of Latino families with children were poor in terms of net worth in 2019. By comparison, the rate for white families was 24 percent. Said Christina Gibson-Davis, co-author of the study, “Their savings are virtually nil, and they have no financial cushion to provide the basics for their children.”

study conducted in part by the Universities of Chicago and Notre Dame found that the poverty rate for Blacks rose over 5 percent in just six months.

Almost half of America’s children live in households that can’t meet basic expenses

This is the greatest shame of all. By late October, 2020 one out of every five American kids was living in poverty conditions. And it’s much worse for Black and Latino families. Incredibly, two out of three Black children (and slightly less for Latinos) live in households that “have trouble covering usual expenses,” according to a Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey conducted in early 2021.

According to one careful study, over half of Americans are trying to survive without full-time living-wage jobs

Official unemployment figures inspire skepticism when ’employed’ is defined as working just ONE HOUR per week. A realistic portrayal of living-wage employment is provided by the Ludwig Institute for Shared Economic Prosperity, which considers part-time workers, those working full-time but earning too little to climb above the poverty line, and discouraged workers who’ve stopped looking for unemployment. As of December 2020, a full 53.9 percent of working-age Americans did not have living-wage full-time jobs.

As further evidence of underemployment, Brookings notes that “Fifty-three million Americans, 44 percent of the labor force, earn low wages.” For these underpaid workers, the median hourly wage in 2019 was $10.22, the median annual income was $18,000. Poverty level.

Half of America has to scramble for second and third jobs, gig jobs, short-term and temporary jobs, to make ends meet. A stunning 62 percent of survey respondents plan to work a second job in 2021 to sustain their families.

And on top of all this, McKinsey just reported that “Households with less than $30,000 in annual income faced double the unemployment rates of higher-income households.”

Glimmers of hope

Researchers at Columbia University estimated that the support provided by the CARES Act maintained the U.S. poverty rate at a level about 30 percent lower than otherwise expected. Stimulus payments have kept us afloat. An overwhelming majority of Americans are in favor of further relief, and the Biden Administration is preparing a massive stimulus bill to accommodate a troubled populace.

But for most Americans, stimulus checks will not sustain family needs for more than a few months. We need Guaranteed Jobs. President Biden’s proposed Civilian Climate Corps is a positive step in this direction.

There is plenty of potential work out there. Biden’s website describes a national investment to “create millions of good, union jobs rebuilding America’s crumbling infrastructure—from roads and bridges to green spaces and water systems to electricity grids and universal broadband..” Just as with FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, young Americans would have the opportunity to improve themselves, make money, and serve their country. A recent Gallup poll found that nearly 70 percent of workers don’t feel ‘engaged’ (enthusiastic and committed) in their jobs. A Guaranteed Jobs program could change that. With half of America facing poverty conditions, we can’t afford to wait.


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