The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
September 24, 2012

Poverty in America

September 24, 2012

The Census Bureau this month released its Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2011 report, which is based on the Current Population Survey. The release came with lots of numbers and it is easy to get buried in them, not seeing the forest for the trees, so to speak. A closer look reveals trends and patterns that tell us more about poverty and employment over the past year.

I focused on two tidbits in the annual CPS report: the link between region and poverty and the link between full-time work and poverty. The South was the only region that saw a reduction in both the percent and the number of people in poverty, even though it still had the highest poverty rate (16.0 percent) and the largest number of people in poverty (18.4 million) among the four major regions (see chart). The report also pointed out that the poverty rate for those who worked full time, year-round was 2.8 percent versus 16.3 percent for those who were not full-time workers. While these respective poverty rates did not change over the past year, it is possible that people moving from part-time or part-year work to full-time, year-round work would be less likely to be poor. And the number of men and women working full time, year-round did increase between 2010 and 2011. While median earnings for full-time workers did not increase (in fact, they declined), the greater earnings from working full time could have been enough to carry these workers’ families over the poverty line.

Changes in Poverty Rate by Region, 2010 to 2011

Thinking about poverty in regional terms, it should not be surprising that the South had the only significant drop in poverty levels. Job growth was relatively robust compared with the nation as a whole. In a Metrotrends commentary, visiting scholar Erica Meade looked at job loss and job growth over the recession and recovery periods. While the largest 100 U.S. metropolitan areas lost 5 percent of their jobs during the recession and gained only 1 percent over the past three years of recovery, there was wide variation among the group. The metro areas in the South, as a group, were more resistant or resilient than those in other regions. Metros in the Southwest, particularly those in Texas, had lower job losses and higher job growth than the nation as a whole. Overall, the median percent increase in jobs for the 100 largest metros was 1 percent between June 2009 and May 2012, but 16 of the 36 metros in the South had increases of 3 percent or more.

Paradoxically, the poverty rate declines in the South don’t show up in the state-level data from the American Community Survey (ACS), which the Census Bureau released on September 19. But the national statistics from these two surveys are different as well, with the CPS showing a poverty rate of 15.0 percent while the ACS showed a rate of 15.9 percent, up from 15.3 percent in 2010.


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