It’s Time to Focus on Poverty and Inequality to improve our National Security and Prosperity

Brian D. Smedley, Ph.D.

Brian D. Smedley, Ph.D.

The U.S. Census Bureau released chilling statistics this week:  nearly one in six Americans is living in poverty.  The number of Americans with incomes below the official poverty line ($22,314 for a family of four) rose by 2.6 million in 2010 to 46.2 million.

The poverty rate in 2010 reached its second-highest point since 1965, median income declined, and the number of Americans without health insurance reached record highs.

Nearly one in 10 children (9.9 percent) fell below half of the poverty line in 2010, up from 9.3 percent in 2009.  Disproportionately, children of color are poor:  over one-third of black children (39.1 percent) and Hispanic children (35.0 percent) are living in poverty.

New research released by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies also shows that the number of Americans living in neighborhoods with a high proportion of poor residents is at a record high:  over 22 million Americans live in these neighborhoods, and doing so typically keeps them poor because of their limited access to good schools, good jobs, and good capital.  (link to report:  http://jointcenter.org/research/a-lost-decade-neighborhood-poverty-and-the-urban-crisis-of-the-2000s)

Those living in high-poverty neighborhoods are disproportionately people of color.  And the concentration of people of color in racially- and economically-segregated neighborhoods is a major driver of the health inequalities that many minorities experience relative to whites, which span from the cradle to the grave.  A second report released last week by the Joint Center shows that metropolitan areas with the highest levels of segregation also experience the worst health inequalities, as measured by rates of infant mortality.  Were people of color and whites integrated, over 2,800 black infant deaths could have been averted in  2008.  (link to report:  http://www.jointcenter.org/research/segregated-spaces-risky-places-the-effects-of-racial-segregation-on-health-inequalities)

Clearly, the issue of poverty – and particularly the concentration of people of color in poor neighborhoods – needs more national attention.  Poverty and inequality are arguably a greater threat to our security and prosperity than any outside our nation’s borders.

The good news is that – be seated, now – government can help.

The level of hardship we see now would have been much worse if not for key federal programs such as unemployment insurance, the Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps, and Medicaid. Without unemployment insurance, for instance, 3.2 million more Americans would have fallen into poverty.  And the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) increased the number of people employed by between 1.0 million and 2.9 million jobs as of June 2010.

As the deficit-busting “Super Committee” convenes, they should prioritize public sector investments that help people survive the economic downturn.

Dr. Brian D. Smedley is Vice President and Director of the Health Policy Institute of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, DC.  More information on Dr. Smedley and his work can be found at the Joint Center website.
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