Op-Ed: Why the federal poverty line doesn’t begin to tell the story of poverty in the U.S.

LA Times, Celine-Marie Pascale, September 24, 2021

Recently released Census Bureau data show that more than 37 million people in America lived at or below the federal poverty line in 2020. That’s 11.4% of the population, and a full percentage point higher than what it was in 2019. 

But the federal poverty line doesn’t begin to tell the story of poverty in the U.S.

Half of U.S. families struggle to make ends meet. They are part of what I call the “uncounted majority,” people who have trouble paying basic bills even though their incomes aren’t low enough to meet the official federal poverty threshold — currently $26,200 for a family of four or $12,760 for an individual.

I’ve witnessed this struggle firsthand while researching low-income communities over the last four years. In cities and towns from California to Kentucky, I met hundreds of working people — from a mix of racial backgrounds — whose real-life experiences highlight the arbitrariness of, and the problems with, the federal poverty line.

People such as Angel Perez, who lives in Oakland and works two part-time jobs for a local school district and helps his father paint houses — and earns less than $16,000 a year. Perez counts himself lucky to be able to live with his father. Otherwise, he would be among Oakland’s more than 4,000 unhoused people.

In southeast Ohio, I commonly met people who worked multiple jobs and who still found it difficult to pay their bills. Michael Chase was one of them. Between two jobs, he works 45 to 60 hours a week and brings home just under $16,000 a year. Neither job comes with health insurance, sick leave or vacation time. He shares an apartment with three roommates — a situation he finds stressful — and still worries at times about making rent.

Yet Chase doesn’t consider himself to be poor. Perhaps more important, neither does the government. In 2020, he was well above the federal poverty line for a single person.

Waiting tables in eastern Kentucky, Jenna Terry earns a pretax income of about $20,000. She lives with her boyfriend, Doug, a car salesman who brings in another $20,000. Neither of their employers offer sick time, vacation or health insurance. The couple have a young daughter, and the $40,000 they make together is nearly double the federal poverty line for a family of three.

Even so, they had trouble paying their monthly bills, which included a high-interest car loan. To reliably cover basic expenses, Terry’s family would need an income of $53,818, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

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