The U.S. Census Bureau on September 12 released new data on poverty in 2011, poverty being defined as a family of four with an annual income of less than $23,000. The data reveal that 46.2 million people (15 percent) lived in poverty last year, not statistically different from 2010.
While poverty increased under the traditional measure in the past several years and remained steady from 2010 to 2011, this metric does not take into account many of the important policy steps the Obama administration implemented to alleviate hardship and provide a pathway back to the middle class. The Recovery Act included the expansion of the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit for working families that kept 1.6 million people out of poverty in 2010.
The expansion of these two tax credits is set to expire at the end of the year. If Congress fails to act, millions of families could be pushed into poverty or experience deeper poverty. Overall, the entire earned income tax credit kept 5.7 million people above the poverty line in 2011.
Similarly, nutrition assistance played a big role in keeping people out of poverty and prevented a significant increase in the share of families struggling against hunger. Between 2007 and 2008, as our economy worsened in the run up to the Great Recession, there was a big jump in household food insecurity. Yet as poverty rose dramatically between 2008 and 2009, food insecurity, a key indicator of family hardship and deprivation, did not. It remained stable even as poverty steadily climbed over the subsequent years. This can be attributed in part to the expansion of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in the 2009 Recovery Act, which helped families afford food even as their incomes dropped. In fact, counting this nutrition aid as income would have lifted 3.9 million people above the poverty line in 2011.
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