Poverty: Snapshot versus long-term findings

Although we often think of the chronically impoverished when we hear the word poverty, many more Americans are likely to experience poverty income at least once over the course of their adult lives.  It is important to keep in mind that the poverty statistics are snapshots in time.  They tell us the current economic situation of an individual and their family, and not where they are going, or where they have been.

As people move through their lives, they often experience ups and downs in income, whether due to job loss, temporary disability, or divorce.  Although we all hope our income starts—and stays!—on an upward trajectory, there are, unfortunately, no guarantees, as the recent recession has so harshly reminded us.

Research finds that, throughout their working-age years, 1 in 2 Americans will have annual income less than the poverty line at least once.  For some people, this is a fleeting, one-time event that may have few, if any, long-term consequences.  Others may cycle in and out of poverty.  And some may be chronically unable to earn more than poverty wages.

While the risk of ever falling below the poverty line is growing across the population, some groups remain more likely to experience poverty than others.  Social and demographic characteristics associated with income and earnings–such as educational attainment, occupation, race, and gender–are strongly related to the risk of experiencing poverty.

When interpreting poverty statistics, remember that “the poor population” is not a homogenous, unchanging group.  Most of the poor population are moving in and out of poverty, with the majority of Americans falling below the poverty line at least once in their lifetime.  In this way, poverty is not something that affects a small minority of the population, but is an experience that increasingly touches all Americans across social and demographic groups.

Recent Cooper Center reports provide detailed information about poverty in Virginia and the income effects of social safety net programs.