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June 1989, Vol. 112, No. 6
Poverty in the 1980's: are poor getting poorer?
Mark S. Littman
Many recent discussions of socioeconomic change have focused on whether or not America's middle class is disappearing. By implication, these discussions raise questions about the level of deprivation of the poor as well. For example, Robert Greenstein, director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, testified before a Senate committee that "The average poor family now falls further below the poverty line than at anytime since 1963, with the exception of the recession and high unemployment years of 1982 and 1983 . . . . the 'poorest of the poor' category . . . reached its highest level in more than a decade."1 And in a similar vein, Tom Wicker, in a recent article citing figures by the sponsors of Justice for All Day, wrote, "As always the poor are getting poorer. Adjusted for inflation the amount by which the incomes of the poor fell below the poverty line rose to $49.2 billion in 1986, from $39.5 billion in 1980.2
This article addresses the issue of whether or not it is demonstrable that the poor are worse off now, in the aggregate, than they were at the beginning of the 1980's (and, where possible, since 1959). Money income is the only measure used, although the effects of various noncash benefits are discussed. Several indicators of relative well-being, based on the Federal Government's official definition of poverty, are defined, and the data are official poverty figures derived from the Current Population Survey and published by the Census Bureau in its Current Population Reports.3 The Government's definition of poverty consists of a set of money income thresholds that vary by family size and number of children and are adjusted annually for inflation by multiplying by the change in the Consumer Price Index. In 1986, the average poverty threshold for a four-person family was $11,200, but thresholds ranged from about $5,600 for a person living alone to $22,500 for a family of nine or more.4
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1 Robert Greenstein, testimony before the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources, Oct. 7, 1987, pp. 2-3.
2 Tom Wicker, "Always with Us: The Plight of America's Poor Worsens," The New York Times, Nov. 19, 1987, p. A31.
3 The latest such report is "Poverty in the United States: 1986," in Current Population Reports, Series P~-60, No. 160.
4 These data are not longitudinal and thus do not illustrate the relative well-being of the same persons over time. Rather, they indicate the mix of persons classified as poor in March of each year. Many of these individuals are poor for only a year or two, and few are poor for a decade or more. For a discussion of the dynamics of poverty, see Greg Duncan, Years of Poverty, Years of Plenty (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1984).
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