Inequality in 2012 by the Numbers

How Far Are We from Making Dr. King’s Dream a Reality?

A look at the current data on inequality suggests we have some work to do if we’re to realize Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of an America that gives equal opportunity to all its citizens.

Martin Luther King Jr. was dedicated to combating poverty and increasing opportunities for people of all backgrounds, issues that we improve on today. (AP/ Staff)
Martin Luther King Jr. was dedicated to combating poverty and increasing opportunities for people of all backgrounds, issues that we improve on today. (AP/ Staff)

Martin Luther King Jr. was an outspoken advocate for the poor and less fortunate. At the time of his death, he was organizing a cross-racial Poor People’s Campaign that raised many issues still important today. Many Americans—particularly communities of color and young people—continue to lack access to economic opportunities and this must be addressed if we are to truly carry on Dr. King’s work.

This by-the-numbers piece takes a look at how many Americans are still struggling to find a way out of poverty, find employment, and gain both health care and education not only for themselves but for their families.

We will only realize Dr. King’s vision when every American has the chance to find a well-paying job, get health care when they get sick, and receive a quality education. The numbers below show much work remains.


  • 46.2 million: The number of Americans in poverty in 2010.
  • 76.7 million: Number of people in families who were living below $44,000 for a family of four (two times the federal poverty line).
  • 27.4: Percentage of African Americans in poverty.
  • 26.6: Percentage of Hispanics in poverty.
  • 9.9: Percentage of non-Hispanic whites in poverty.
  • 45.3: Percentage of young adults facing poverty, when they are considered independently of their parents.
  • 5.9 million: Number of young adults living with their parents. Those who aren’t saw a 9 percent decrease in their income.
  • 39.1: Percentage of African American children less than 18 years old in poverty.
  • 12.4: Percentage of white children less than 18 years old in poverty.

To start fixing this problem, it’s important that we grow the country’s number of low-skill jobs, so that those in poverty can begin to find a way out. We also need to maintain a solid safety net for those who can’t work, such as the elderly and the disabled.


December’s unemployment numbers were lower than they’ve been since February 2009, but many people are still struggling to find work, including minorities, young adults, and those without a high school diploma. Long-term unemployment also still remains a major problem.

  • 13.1 million: Total number of unemployed Americans.
  • 15.8: Percentage of African Americans facing unemployment.
  • 11: Percentage of Hispanics facing unemployment.
  • 23: Percentage of unemployed young adults, ages 16 to 19.
  • 13.8: Percentage of unemployed people who didn’t graduate high school.

According to Christian E. Weller, an associate professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and a CAP Senior Fellow, long-term unemployment continues to affect many Americans:

  • 42.5: Percentage of people unemployed for at least 27 weeks in December of 2011.
  • 40.8: Average number of weeks unemployment lasted that month. This is higher than the December 2010 average of 34.2 weeks.

Weller says that in order to fight “[t]hese persistent and long-running weaknesses” we must give “continued policy attention with extended unemployment-insurance benefits, support for states and localities to maintain employment in education, health care, and other critical services, and infrastructure investment to buttress the blooming recovery in construction and manufacturing.”

Health care

Many Americans are also struggling to get health care—the most basic of needs. 49.1 million people under 65 didn’t have insurance in 2010.

  • 41: Percentage of those under 65 in poverty without insurance.
  • 22: Percentage of blacks under 65 without insurance.
  • 32: Percentage of Hispanics under 65 without insurance.
  • 14: Percentage of whites under 65 without insurance.

The Affordable Care Act, the health reform legislation signed into law by President Barack Obama on March 23, 2010, can help these people get the coverage they need:

  • 32 million: Number of people who will gain insurance under the Affordable Care Act and the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act.
  • 66 million: Number of people who could be insured under Medicaid by 2019. Under the Affordable Care Act, it’s anticipated that Medicaid will expand in 2014.


As many of these same groups fight against poverty, unemployment, and finding affordable health care, they also struggle to attain a college degree and the chance to move up the economic ladder.

  • 20.6: Percentage of African Americans, in March 2009, with at least a bachelor’s degree.
  • 14: Percentage of Hispanics.
  • 31.9: Percentage of whites.
  • 20 percent less: Amount earned by African Americans with bachelor’s degrees versus whites with the same amount of education.
  • 63: Percentage of all jobs in the next 10 years that will require at least some postsecondary education.
  • 13: Percentage of African Americans getting higher education
  • 22: Percentage of African Americans attending for-profit colleges. These colleges lead to more debt and lower post-graduation earnings, as well as less chance of finding a job for students who have no prior experience with higher education.

For-profit school students are also more likely to default on their loans:

  • 20: Percentage who default on loans below $25,000.
  • 12: Percentage of community college students who default on loans.
  • 4: Percentage of nonprofit and four-year public school students who default on loans.

Congress should ensure that all students have access to quality, affordable college options by:

  • Using competitive grants to encourage the development of lower-cost college options
  • Increasing access to free, online courseware
  • Rewarding low-income students who persist through the first year of college with additional funding for internships or other work-study experiences
  • Holding colleges accountable for their students’ outcomes by requiring colleges that receive federal financial aid funds to meet minimum standards for student success

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