Shyama Venkateswar Distinguished Lecturer, Hunter College and Director, Public Policy Program, Roosevelt House

Posted on September 18, 2015 · Posted in Frank Friday

Every September, the U.S. Census Bureau releases its annual report on income, poverty and health insurance coverage. Data released earlier this week show that poverty levels have not improved; there were a staggering 46.7 million people living below the poverty line in 2014, which translates to about 14.8 percent of the population. This is the fourth year in which there has been no statistically significant change in poverty levels from the previous year.

Another close reading of the new Census numbers show that within the group living at or below the poverty level, there are striking gender differences. The poverty rate for women between the ages of 25 and 34 is 6.9 percent higher than that for men; for women between the ages 65 and 74 it is 2.9 percent higher; and finally, the gender poverty gap for women over the age of 75 expands to 7.1 percent.

Policy analysts often point to some core reasons for this feminization of poverty: a lack of guaranteed paid maternity leave, a lack of paid sick leave, and a lack of investments in affordable child care. Add to this mix a wage gap that is more pronounced for women of color, and you are left with an economy where women of color disproportionately occupy lower wage jobs that offer few protections or benefits—or few opportunities to reach the middle class.

A silver lining in this grim news is that the Affordable Health Care Act has decreased the number of uninsured by 8.8 million, to a total of 33 million. While the number of people who remain without coverage is intolerably high for a country as rich as the United States, this figure shows that government programs can make a real difference in the lives of America’s most vulnerable. The Supplemental Poverty Measure, which examines the impact of safety net programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps, and housing subsidies — among  many others — shows that these programs are critical government interventions that keep millions out of poverty. Unfortunately, these are the very programs that are under attack in Congress.

A thoughtful new book, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer focuses on the entrenched poverty in the United States, in particular the lives of approximately 1.5 million households, many of them working parents, who are living on almost nothing and receiving minimal government assistance.  The book paints a stark picture of the daily struggle for survival of families in the United States who have fallen through the cracks and who, sadly, remain invisible to our policymakers.

Share your thoughts on policy initiatives to address America’s persistently high poverty levels. What question related to poverty might you ask any of our presidential candidates, both Democrat and Republican?

We welcome your opinions. Tweet @DrSVenkateswar and @PcubedatRH and post on our Facebook page, P-Cubed at Roosevelt House.

The writing and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute or Hunter College.