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Preliminary Poverty Data Shows Hardship Persists in North Carolina & Nation

Economic hardship persists in North Carolina and the nation, according to new figures released today from the United States Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey. The national poverty rate remained higher than pre-recession levels despite three years of an official economic recovery. The national poverty rate stood at 15.0 percent with 46.2 million Americans still living in poverty in 2011.  The preliminary federal poverty level [1] in 2011 was $11,491 for an individual and $23,018 for a family of four.

Poverty is hitting certain groups particularly hard nationwide. The child poverty rate in 2011 was 21.9 percent, meaning 16.1 million children lived in poverty. The poverty rate jumps to 24.5 percent for children under age 6. For Americans between the ages of 18 and 64 with a disability, the poverty rate was 28.8 percent. For African Americans and Hispanics, the poverty rates were 27.6 percent and 25.3 percent, respectively. All of these groups’ poverty rates are well-above the national poverty rate of 15 percent, and like the nation, most of these groups’ poverty rates were statistically unchanged since 2010. Of these groups mentioned, Hispanics were the only group to see a statistically significant decline (1.2 percentage points) in the poverty rate.

As the Budget and Tax Center detailed in the State of Working North Carolina report [2], high poverty rates are driven primarily by the weak economic recovery, lack of jobs, and fast growth in low-paying jobs [3]. It is important to remember, however, that there were conditions in place well before the start of the Great Recession that generated persistently high rates of poverty in many parts of North Carolina.  Poverty leads to a host of negative consequences for families, young children, seniors, and neighborhoods. Truly, all of us are affected by widespread, sustained economic hardship.

Although the state-level data released today is a preliminary estimate [4], it is not surprising that the estimates show the average North Carolinian continues to fare worse than the average American.

Using an alternative poverty measure [5], the Census Bureau also released research [6] today showing that government programs have lifted millions of Americans out of poverty. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—formerly known as food stamps—lifted 3.9 million people out of poverty, including 1.7 million children. The Earned Income Tax Credit lifted 5.7 million people out of poverty, including 3.1 million children. Unemployment insurance benefits kept 2.3 million people out of poverty and Social Security income kept 21.4 million people out of poverty.

This research shows how effectively major parts of the safety net have fought poverty in America. Without these supports for working families and other individuals in our communities, the extent of poverty would have been more widespread. With this evidence, it is troubling that funding for social programs could be dramatically reduced over the next ten years [7], making the outlook for substantially reducing poverty grim.

We cannot continue to ignore poverty in our communities and fail to address its root causes. The consequences of growing poverty are widespread and indicative of a weak economy that is not working well for everyone. Policymakers must turn their attention to this issue, starting with a focus on addressing the job deficit and supporting families who are struggling to make ends meet in these difficult times.