Poverty Rates Rise to All Time High, Women Hardest Hit

(Originally published at Legal Momentum Briefing Room)

The Census Bureau recently released data showing that poverty in the U.S. is at an all time high. More Americans now live in poverty than during the 51 years in which poverty has been measured. 43.6 million Americans lived below the poverty level of $22,000 for a family of four in 2009. More than one in five children lived in poverty, and one in three for African American children. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, these rates would be even more alarming if it were not for unemployment benefits. Without unemployment benefits, the number of people in poverty would have been higher by 3.3 million.

Poverty hits women hardest, and a large gender poverty gap has persisted since poverty measurement began. Adult women were thirty-two percent more likely to be poor than adult men in 2009, with a poverty rate of 13.9% compared to the 10.5% rate for men. 16.4 million adult women were poor, compared to 11.7 million adult men. A report by Legal Momentum, entitled “Reading Between the Lines: Women’s Poverty in the United States, 2009,” details this disparity.

Yet as millions of Americans suffer from poverty, especially women and children, those most in need are often unable to access government assistance. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the main federal welfare program, has repeatedly failed to serve as a safety net for these individuals. In January, Legal Momentum wrote:

“The number of persons receiving TANF increased just 12% over the first twenty two months of the recession, rising from 3,833,449 in December 2007 (excluding Michigan) to 4,286,905 in September 2009 (excluding Michigan). This 12% TANF increase was far less than the growth in the real need for assistance implied by the increase over this same twenty two month period of 35% in the number of Food Stamp recipients (from 27.56 million to 37.18 million) and of 96% in the unemployment rate (from 5.0% to 9.8%). Even before the recession began, TANF was reaching only a minority of eligible families and an even smaller minority of poor families.”

Interim Legal Momentum President Rachael Pine states, “The increased poverty and the continuing gender poverty gap underscore the need for a social safety net that is accessible and adequate. Currently, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, the national welfare program for families with children, is neither: only a minority of eligible poor families are receiving benefits and the assistance provided fails to cover even the most basic essentials of food and shelter. The increasingly large plague of poverty in America warrants an equally strong response: Congress and the Administration must act to reform TANF now.”

Indeed, despite the desperate need for assistance, Americans are often unable to access the very help they require. Last December, Legal Momentum and the Institute for Policy Studies released a report, “Battered by the Storm: How the Safety Net Is Failing Americans and How to Fix It,” which argues that despite the continued rise of the economic crisis, America’s social safety net is not sufficiently supporting Americans in need. TANF has barely increased since the onslaught of the recession, and even programs that have expanded, such as unemployment insurance, still fail to assist nearly half of the unemployed. Federal action must be taken to make TANF, along with all other social assistance programs, more accessible and responsive at such a critical time. As poverty rises, social safety nets must be in place to help all in need, particularly women and children.

* Read Legal Momentum’s report, “Reading Between the Lines: Women’s Poverty in the United States, 2009.”
* Learn more about Legal Momentum’s work to strengthen the social safety and reform TANF.
* Read Legal Momentum’s report, “Battered by the Storm: How the Safety Net is Failing Americans and How to Fix It.”
* Learn more about Legal Momentum.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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