Out of The Spotlight

Chronic vs. Episodic Poverty: Census Offers a Complex Picture of Poverty in America

“Out of the Spotlight” Posting for March 18, 2011

This 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.


The 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.


The 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.


In 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.


OOTS 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.


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


Here at Out of the Spotlight, we offer a behind-the-scenes look at the latest news and information essential to anyone working to fight poverty. From key political appointees to clashes over policy, we cover the news that doesn't always make the evening news. Check out Out of the Spotlight for our take on the twists and turns of the latest political developments and their impact on poverty reduction. Topics and ideas are welcome! Just contact mlaracy@aecf.org or watersboots@hotmail.com