Poverty often a temporary state, U.S. census study finds

Many households below the poverty line at the beginning of a U.S. census study had climbed out by the end — and vice versa.

March 28, 2011|By Ari Bloomekatz, Los Angeles Times
  • The Ashley family: Donny Jr., 9, Yazmenda, Donny Sr. and Tiara, 7. Because of the parents' job losses, the household has recently gone from struggling along just above the poverty threshold to now being officially poor.
The Ashley family: Donny Jr., 9, Yazmenda, Donny Sr. and Tiara, 7. Because… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

Donny Ashley misses the days when he was just barely poor.

Sure, he commuted more than three hours each day to work as an electrical apprentice, but the paycheck — about $575 a week — put his family of four over the federal poverty threshold.

But then the economy turned, and he lost his job. His wife managed to get work as a nurse but lost that job about a month ago. Now, having burned through their savings, the Watts family has gone from barely poor to officially poor.

"It's not a good feeling to be, not necessarily above the poverty line, but somewhat, almost having your head above water where you can breathe. Now I'm drowning," Ashley said. "It's a constant feeling of struggle, like no end in sight."

A report released recently by the U.S. Census Bureau suggests that Ashley's roller coaster ride along the poverty line is not unusual. The study found that poverty was often a temporary state for households: As some families moved out of poverty, others moved in. The report also showed that many of those families that escaped poverty continued to generate only minimal incomes.

Using interviews from more than 43,000 households over 36 months, researchers found that of those who were impoverished in 2004, 42% did not remain so in 2006.

The poverty threshold for a family of four is $21,954 a year — a figure that is adjusted annually for inflation and based on a decades-old formula that assumes families spend a third of their income on food. The threshold, which government officials call a statistical yardstick, does not directly account for the cost of clothing, shelter, utilities and other expenses.

Researchers found that although 11.7 million people rose above the poverty threshold between 2004 and 2006, 10.1 million dropped below the poverty line. The report also showed that of the people considered impoverished in 2004, 41.6% were not in poverty in 2006, yet more than half of them earned only 50% more than the poverty threshold.

Chris Tilly, director of UCLA's Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, said the report represents a glass that can be viewed as either half full or half empty.

"I wouldn't say that's a stunningly positive result. Poverty is dynamic; not everybody stays in poverty long term," he said. "We've always known that people move in and out of poverty, [but] there are people who tend to get stuck."

Since the study encompassed only the years 2004 to 2006, it does not reflect the recent economic downturn. Currently, the poverty rate stands at 14.3%, the highest it's been in 15 years.

Victor Narro, director of UCLA's Downtown Labor Center, said the report also doesn't account for "human indicators."

"Being in poverty, it's more than just economics," Narro said. "It's the stress and the damage it causes to the family … even if a family is able to recuperate and get back."

A five-year estimate from 2005 to 2009 by the Census Bureau showed that 13.2% of Californians were in poverty, compared with 13.5% nationally. In Los Angeles County, 15.4% of the population fell below the poverty line, according to the report.

But for Ashley, being poor is not just about numbers, it's about providing for his family and paying bills.

"With this economy, with everything being so expensive, gas prices … I'm working on trying to find a job, but the job market is so scarce right now," he said, adding that his monthly bills had also increased. "There's not a whole lot of opportunities. It's really difficult."

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