Chronic vs. Episodic Poverty: Census Offers a Complex Picture of Poverty in America
“Out of the Spotlight” Posting for March 18, 2011
week, the Census Bureau released a report headlining that for most people poverty is a
temporary condition. A close examination of the data reveals a more nuanced
picture. The report presents poverty data based on information collected in the
Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) between January 2004 and the
end of 2006. The SIPP interviews a representative sample of U.S. households
every four months.
headline of the Census Bureau’s press release states “Census Bureau Survey
Shows Poverty is Primarily a Temporary Condition” because only about three percent of the survey
participants were poor during the entire three-year period (what the Census
calls chronic poverty). This is true. But as the report also notes, among those
who are poor about a quarter are chronically poor.
report gives additional information on what is called episodic poverty—a period
of living in poverty for at least two
consecutive months. During the three years of data collection, 28.9 percent of
the population suffered a period of episodic poverty. The information gets more
nuanced when you look at age, race, and family make-up. For children under 18,
fully 36.4 percent experienced episodic poverty and the median length of a
poverty spell was higher—5.2 months versus 4.5 months for the entire
population. The story is more severe for Hispanic and Black Americans: 45.5
percent of Hispanics and 45.8 percent of Blacks experienced episodic poverty
during the three year period. More than half of female-headed households – 51.8
percent – experienced a period of episodic poverty.
addition to the families in poverty, there is a significant population that
hovers near the poverty line. During the three year data collection, 10.1
million people entered poverty while 11.7 million exited poverty. But for the
11.7 million who climbed over the poverty line, more than
half lived at less than 150 percent of the poverty level—an amount that many
argue is still not enough to meet basic family needs. Another 8.6 million
people saw their income decline from above 150 percent of poverty to between
100 and 150 percent of poverty.
hopes economists and social scientists will continue to slice and dice this
data to glean the complex story of American poverty. Living in poverty for any
period of time – even for a few months – can have a significant impact on a
family. Policymakers, social workers, and researchers need to carefully examine
this data to devise stronger supports and services for families experiencing
episodic poverty or who are on the cusp of falling into poverty.
is complex. This new analysis reminds us that it touches a large number of
Americans each year—even if only for a few months.
Posted by Amy
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