Making Justice Real

The Official Blog of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia

The Poverty Statistics

Jonathan Smith, Executive Director

The most recent numbers out of the Census Bureau on poverty are shocking.  There are more people living in poverty than any time since the 1950’s.   More than 107,000 District residents are below 100% of poverty and more than 207,000 live below 200% of poverty, a measure that more accurately approximates the minimum income needed to pay for  basic needs. 

There is a lot of good work being done by advocacy groups to try and understand these numbers.  I won’t try and repeat the analysis in this blog.   See

There are, however, a couple of observations that have been buried in the reporting:

  1. Poverty is not a by-product of the recession.   Poverty has been a persistent problem in the United States and has remained well above 10% of the population since the end of World War II.   In fact, the rate of poverty was higher in the early 1960’s, 1980’s and 1990’s than it is today.  While it is terrific that the media has finally awakened to this issue, the newly announced rates should not be a surprise to anyone who has paid even passing attention.It is important that the goal not be to return to historic poverty levels (down from 14.3% to 12%), but to eliminate poverty altogether.   This issue should not go away just because we are no longer at record numbers of people who are poor.   Even at half of the current rate, the shame of hungery children, jobless parents and seniors without adequate shelter in this land of plenty should move us to action.
  2. The rate of poverty is not because there is not enough to go around, but income inequality plays a role:   As we have previously written in this blog, the economic pain caused by the recession is not equally shared.  Record rates of poverty are accompanied by a record income inequality.  Those at the top of the economic scale are doing better than ever.
  3. Ending poverty is neither impossible nor a mystery:   It will take political will and persistence to end poverty, but it is possible.   It will require a long term commitment to create real jobs with living wages and programs that connect those who have been excluded from the work force to them.   Income supports will continue to be necessary, but in a functioning job market, they will be required much less.
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