Nearly 32 percent of Americans experienced a spell of living in poverty that lasted at least two months between 2009 and 2011, according to Census Bureau data. That figure is up 4.5 percentage points compared to 2005 to 2007.
While poverty was often a temporary experience, with 44 percent of the spells ending within four months, more than 15 percent lasted more than two years and 3.5 percent of Americans lived in poverty the entire three-year period between 2009 and 2011, again an increase from the previous period. Many also weren’t able to escape poverty: 37.6 million people were poor in early 2009, and more than a quarter remained poor through the end of the period. Some were more fortunate, as 12.6 million escaped poverty by 2011, but about half of those still lived precariously, making below 150 percent of the poverty line.
The likelihood of experiencing episodic poverty, or falling below the poverty line for two or more months at a time, is also tied heavily to race. A quarter of white people experienced episodic poverty during 2009 to 2011, while 45 percent and nearly half of Hispanics did. The chronic poverty rate, those who stayed in poverty over the entire time period, is also lower for whites than it is for blacks and Hispanics.
By many other measures, far too many Americans have struggled to get by since the recession. Nearly half the country makes so little that it can’t afford basic necessities. A record number of people pay more than they can afford on rent. One in seven families faces food insecurity. Little wonder, when the unemployment rate is still high and most of the jobs being created pay low wages.
Things would be worse without government programs, which lifted millions out of poverty last year. The rate would be double what it is today without the social safety net. Yet many of those very programs have been on the chopping block. Food stamps were reduced in November and are likely to see more cuts soon. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, otherwise known as welfare, has failed to keep up with increased need. The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, has been cut by $1.6 billion since 2010 and also took a blow from sequestration. Benefits have lapsed for the long-term unemployed. Housing assistance was cut by $2 billion last year, which meant 140,000 fewer families getting the help and some even having vouchers taken away.