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Happy Holidays? One in two Americans are now poor or low income

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
December 16th, 2011
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

It's next to impossible to have a happy holiday this season as the Census Bureau reports that a record number of Americans - one in two, or nearly half are living in poverty or are considered low income.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - According to the latest census data, the American middle class is rapidly shrinking. Unemployment remains high and the government's safety net frays.

"Safety net programs such as food stamps and tax credits kept poverty from rising even higher in 2010, but for many low-income families with work-related and medical expenses, they are considered too 'rich' to qualify," Sheldon Danziger, a University of Michigan public policy professor says.

Danziger, who specializes in poverty, says that the "reality is that prospects for the poor and the near poor are dismal. If Congress and the states make further cuts, we can expect the number of poor and low-income families to rise for the next several years."

There are a few who debate the assessment of what constitutes as "Poor" in the United States. Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, says that while safety-net programs have helped many Americans, they have gone too far, citing poor people who live in decent-size homes, drive cars and own wide-screen TVs.

"There's no doubt the recession has thrown a lot of people out of work and incomes have fallen," Rector said. "As we come out of recession, it will be important that these programs promote self-sufficiency rather than dependence and encourage people to look for work."

Many middle-class Americans are dropping below the low-income threshold, which is set at $45,000 for a family of four because of pay cuts, a forced reduction of work hours or a spouse losing a job. Housing and child-care costs are consuming up to half of a family's income.

Arizona, New Mexico and South Carolina, along with states in the South and West had the highest shares of low-income families. By raw numbers, such families were most numerous in California and Texas, each with more than 1 million.

The new measure of poverty takes into account medical, commuting and other living costs, which pushed the number of people below 200 percent of the poverty level up from 104 million, or 1 in 3 Americans, that was officially reported in September.

Children were most likely to be poor or low-income, about 57 percent followed by seniors over 65. By race and ethnicity, Hispanics topped the list at 73 percent, followed by blacks, Asians and non-Hispanic whites.

Following the recession that began in late 2007, the share of working families who are low income has risen for three straight years to 31.2 percent, or 10.2 million. That proportion is the highest in at least a decade.

Among low-income families, about one-third were considered poor while the remainder, or 6.9 million earned income just above the poverty line. Many states phase out eligibility for food stamps, Medicaid, tax credit and other government aid programs for low-income Americans as they approach 200 percent of the poverty level.

Many U.S. mayors point towards the challenges of meeting increased demands for food assistance, expressing particular concern about possible cuts to federal programs such as food stamps and WIC, which assists low-income pregnant women and mothers. Unemployment led the list of causes of hunger in cities, followed by poverty, low wages and high housing costs.

"People who never thought they would need food are in need of help," Mayor Sly James of Kansas City, Missouri says. James co-chairs a mayors' task force on hunger and homelessness.

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