In the conversation about poverty: don't forget about deep and persistent poverty
About 15 percent of Americans are living in poverty and many more experience one or more spells of poverty over the course of a year. Thanks to Alan Berube and Elizabeth Kneebone’s new book, Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, people are talking about this bleak reality and what to do about it.
Over the past few months, the two of us have been focusing on an even more distressing reality: the 6.6 percent of Americans—more than 20 million adults and children—who live in deep poverty.
Deep poverty is commonly defined as having cash income below half the poverty line—in 2012, that’s less than $1,000 a month for a family of four. Other measures change this picture slightly, but even the Census Bureau’s new Supplemental Poverty Measure puts deep poverty at about 5 percent after factoring in cash transfers, tax credits, and tax liabilities, as well as major expenses like the cost of commuting to work, out-of-pocket medical costs, and child support payments.
People suffering from deep poverty are diverse and their circumstances defy simple characterizations. Their needs reflect multiple and often interacting disadvantages. They include single mothers and their children, people who are homeless or formerly incarcerated, disabled veterans, and people with serious mental illnesses. They include many immigrants. While people of color have among the highest levels of poverty, the poor and deeply poor are predominantly white. About half of those living in deep poverty are under age 25. Most deeply poor adults aren’t working.
Many people in deep poverty face significant personal challenges: disabilities and other major health problems, very low levels of education and work skills, criminal background histories, and limited social networks that can buffer them in hard times. Any of these challenges makes working difficult and research shows that combinations of multiple challenges make it especially hard for people to escape deep poverty. They also make it hard to provide a stable and nurturing environment for children.
Over the course of months and years, many people cycle in and out of poverty. A job loss, a divorce, a natural disaster, or time away from work to care for a newborn or tend to an ill family member can all push a family into poverty—even deep poverty—temporarily. Many of these families climb back out of poverty fairly quickly. Indeed, about half the people who fall into poverty are poor for less than a year, and about three-quarters are poor for less than four years.
But about a third of people who become poor in a given year will remain poor for half or more of the next 10 years. Persistent poverty year after year is very debilitating. Children raised in persistently poor families have far worse outcomes later in life than those who were poor for just a year or two.
Poverty is, by definition, a lack of income. But deep and persistent poverty reflects deficits that are much more profound. Addressing them requires intensive and sustained supports that span conventional policy and programmatic silos. The work requirements and other conditions imposed by many of today’s federal safety-net programs may make sense for people experiencing short spells of poverty, but they are clearly failing to meet the needs of people in deep and persistent poverty.
As the nation tackles poverty in the aftermath of the Great Recession—and develops strategies that reflect new economic and geographic realities—let’s remember people living in deep and persistent poverty. The portfolio of anti-poverty tools deployed in any community should include the intensive, multi-faceted, and long-lasting supports needed by individuals and families trapped in deep and persistent poverty.
Photograph by JOAKIM ESKILDSEN from "Below the Line: Portraits of American Poverty," photo-essay commissioned by Time magazine, November 2011, and forthcoming in Joakim Eskildsen and Natsha Del Toro, American Realities (Steidl). Used with permission.