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A Closer Look at the 14.3% 2009 Poverty Rate

By | Sep 21, 2010

Last Thursday the United States Census Bureau reported that the nation’s poverty rate in 2009 was 14.3 percent. While the overall poverty rate gives a general sense as to how the population as a whole is doing, it says little about the experience of individuals.

Like any aggregated statistic, the national poverty rate is a summation of all people across the country experiencing poverty. Poverty levels differ by geography, race, gender, age, and a number of other factors.

Indeed, while the overall rate is astonishing, it is in the unpacking of the Census poverty data that more disturbing trends can be seen.

For this post I took a closer look at the data the Census used to report the new national poverty statistic. I examined the poverty levels at different household sizes and by race and ethnicity in 2009.

Household Size

The following graph shows the poverty level by household size in 2009. With the exception of those living in a household of only one person, you can see that as households grow larger, people are more likely to live in poverty.

At six or more persons in a household, the rate well exceeds the national average of 14.3%.

While it may seem logical that adding more people to a household unit increases the financial burden, why is poverty so high for people who live alone?

The answer to this question likely has less to do with household size, and more to do with who is likely to live alone.

Elderly persons whose children have long left and spouses’ have died are most likely to live in a household size of one. The 22% poverty rate for persons living alone probably reflects the dramatic senior poverty rates in the U.S.

Race and Ethnicity

Poverty rates vary greatly across racial and ethnic lines. The following graph shows that poverty levels are significantly higher for Blacks and Hispanics than Whites.

While national statistics are useful for creating a snapshot of poverty in America, it is important not to make assumptions about what aggregate statistics mean for individuals. The fact is that some people are more likely to be victims of poverty than others.

The real story poverty statistics tell is not that poverty affects everyone, but rather that demographic indicators are frighteningly predictive of who gets forced into poverty, and who is spared.

Photo credit: Esther Gibbons