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Analysts also believe that the poorest poor, defined as those at 50 percent or less of the poverty level, will remain near its peak level of 6.7 percent.
"I’ve always been the guy who could find a job. Now I’m not," said Dale Szymanski, 56, a Teamsters Union forklift operator and convention hand who lives outside Las Vegas in Clark County. In a state where unemployment ranks highest in the nation, the Las Vegas suburbs have seen a particularly rapid increase in poverty from 9.7 percent in 2007 to 14.7 percent.
Szymanski, who moved from Wisconsin in 2000, said he used to make a decent living of more than $40,000 a year but now doesn’t work enough hours to qualify for union health care. He changed apartments several months ago and sold his aging 2001 Chrysler Sebring in April to pay expenses.
"You keep thinking it’s going to turn around. But I’m stuck," he said.
The 2010 poverty level was $22,314 for a family of four, and $11,139 for an individual, based on an official government calculation that includes only cash income, before tax deductions. It excludes capital gains or accumulated wealth, such as home ownership, as well as noncash aid such as food stamps and tax credits, which were expanded substantially under President Barack Obama’s stimulus package.
An additional 9 million people in 2010 would have been counted above the poverty line if food stamps and tax credits were taken into account.
Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, believes the social safety net has worked and it is now time to cut back. He worries that advocates may use a rising poverty rate to justify additional spending on the poor, when in fact, he says, many live in decent-size homes, drive cars and own wide-screen TVs.
A new census measure accounts for noncash aid, but that supplemental poverty figure isn’t expected to be released until after the November election. Since that measure is relatively new, the official rate remains the best gauge of year-to-year changes in poverty dating back to 1959.
Few people advocate cuts in anti-poverty programs. Roughly 79 percent of Americans think the gap between rich and poor has grown in the past two decades, according to a Public Religion Research Institute/RNS Religion News survey from November 2011. The same poll found that about 67 percent oppose "cutting federal funding for social programs that help the poor" to help reduce the budget deficit.
Outside of Medicaid, federal spending on major low-income assistance programs such as food stamps, disability aid and tax credits have been mostly flat at roughly 1.5 percent of the gross domestic product from 1975 to the 1990s. Spending spiked higher to 2.3 percent of GDP after Obama’s stimulus program in 2009 temporarily expanded unemployment insurance and tax credits for the poor.
The U.S. safety net may soon offer little comfort to people such as Jose Gorrin, 52, who lives in the western Miami suburb of Hialeah Gardens. Arriving from Cuba in 1980, he was able to earn a decent living as a plumber for years, providing for his children and ex-wife. But things turned sour in 2007 and in the past two years he has barely worked, surviving on the occasional odd job.
His unemployment aid has run out, and he’s too young to draw Social Security.
Holding a paper bag of still-warm bread he’d just bought for lunch, Gorrin said he hasn’t decided whom he’ll vote for in November, expressing little confidence the presidential candidates can solve the nation’s economic problems. "They all promise to help when they’re candidates," Gorrin said, adding, "I hope things turn around. I already left Cuba. I don’t know where else I can go."
Associated Press writers Kristen Wyatt in Lakewood, Colo., Ken Ritter and Michelle Rindels in Las Vegas, Laura Wides-Munoz in Miami and AP Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.
Census Bureau: http://www.census.gov
National Association of State Budget Officers: http://www.nasbo.org
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