The 2009 poverty numbers were released last week, and things are a lot worse than many economists thought they would be. The poverty rate jumped up a full percentage point, from 13.2 to 14.3 percent. This means that one in seven Americans live in poverty, 4 million more than a year ago. This is the third year the level of poverty and the number of poor Americans has risen.
The poverty rate among African Americans rose, too, from 24.7 percent to 25.8 percent. The rate for Hispanics rose from 23.2 percent to 25.1 percent. African Americans have the highest poverty rate of any racial ethnic group. In contrast the rate for non-Hispanic whites is 9.4 percent, less than half the rate for African Americans.
These data are bad enough, but New York University economist Max Wolff says the data behind the data are even worse. The younger you are in America, says Dr. Wolff, the more likely you are to live in poverty. So while one in 7 Americans is poor, being young raises the poverty rate to 1 in 4. While one in 4 African Americans is poor, being young raises the African American poverty rate to one in 2.5. Some think that young people will lessen their chances of being in poverty as they age, but early poverty experiences are likely to influence future opportunity.
When young people lived with non-relatives, two-thirds of them lived in poverty. This is ominous data for the hundreds of thousands of foster children in our country. In disaggregating the data that were released last Thursday, Dr. Wolff show the extreme vulnerability that urban youth experienced, especially those that drop out of high school. Again, these young people are disproportionately African American.
The health insurance data are no more promising. 50.7 million Americans, 16. 7 percent of the population, do not have health insurance coverage. This data make it clear why it was so very important for President Obama to push hard for national health care. More than 15 percent of whites lack health insurance coverage, compared to 21 percent of African Americans and 32 percent of Hispanics. The percentage of those without health coverage is undoubtedly tied to the percentage of those who are jobless or who have cobbled together part time jobs without benefits.
Another aspect of this poverty data is the rising number of people who are simply hungry in our nation, people, especially children who do not have enough to eat. This week, policy makers will throng to New York to speak of world poverty, which is an important and challenging issue. At the same time, some attention must be paid to the poverty and hunger that exist right here in the United States. President Obama has pledged to end hunger in our country by 2015, but child nutrition legislation (HR 5504), which needs reauthorization, languishes in Congress. At the same time as more people need food stamps, food stamp benefits were cut so that budgets could be balanced.
While my work focuses on the economic status of African Americans and I have been particularly concerned about the growth of poverty in African American communities, the fact is that poverty has a most diverse face in this nation. Eighteen million of our nation's poor are non-Hispanic whites; nearly 10 million are African American, more than 12 million are Hispanic and 1.7 million are Asian. There is a Rainbow Coalition of poor people in this country, enough to spark a Poor People's Campaign like the one Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. planned in 1968. What would happen if the nation's poor united to talk about the economic restructuring that is badly needed in this country?
The new poverty doesn't only exist in inner cities. Some of the new poor are in suburbs, wide-eyed and frightened to be in an economic predicament they never would have expected to find themselves in. Poverty is at a disturbing high in our nation - it is higher than it was in 1960. Its reach is wide, and not a single population has been exempted.
Still, I am especially sympathetic to those who are young, gifted, and poor. What will their lives look like in the future if they are shackled with poverty now?
Dr. Julianne Malveaux is a noted economist and president of Bennett College for Women.