11/12/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Ugly Truth: Poverty in America

On September 10, the Census Bureau published the official poverty figures for 2008. After the economic maelstrom of the past year, which brought massive lay-offs and stagnant unemployment to millions of Americans, the picture the figures paint is not a pretty one. The report indicates that the national poverty rate rose to 13.2 percent in 2008, the highest rate since 1997.  The poverty rate will almost certainly rise again as unemployment has been higher in 2009 than in 2008. The large poverty gulf separating men and women persists, with women 35 percent more likely to be poor than men.

As bleak as the poverty figures appear, the Census Bureau’s numbers likely underestimate the depth and scale of the problem.  The Bureau uses virtually the same formula that it adopted in 1965 which bases the poverty threshold solely on the price of food. The analysis does not take into account the mounting costs of medical care, child care and transportation. Likewise, the calculation pays no attention to housing expenses and geographical variations in costs, unrealistically expecting that a family making do in Manhattan will have the same standard of living as a family living in rural Georgia on the same income. 

Given the scale of the problem facing us, we must address the structural issues that frustrate our efforts to help poor Americans.  On the one hand, the Census Bureau must reconstruct the formula for measuring poverty so that we can understand the true scope of poverty in the nation.  On the other, we must overhaul TANF, which acts as the final stopgap for families on the brink of destitution.

Nearly 15 years after sweeping welfare reform legislation, the nation’s main antipoverty program -- Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) -- is failing to reach millions of poor children, women and families that are eligible for aid. In 1995, 82 percent of poor families were receiving aid; as of 2005, government assistance only reached 40 percent of those eligible, with signs pointing to even fewer by 2008. As the overwhelming majority of TANF recipients are single mothers with young children, the steep drop in participation means that some of our most vulnerable families are surviving on little to nothing. 

Likewise, when families actually receive TANF assistance, the benefits are rarely enough to cover even basic necessities. The median benefit level for a family of three is just $426 dollars a month. Given this meager sum, hardships such as hunger, homelessness, and inability to afford appropriate medical care or even sufficient winter clothing are common.

Recognizing that the economic downturn would land more families in economically dire straits, Congress and the Administration took positive proactive steps with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act which included a $5 billion emergency fund for needy families to help states support increases in their welfare rolls. To receive funding, states must contribute a 20 percent match of their own, which has led some of the hardest hit states to turn down the aid on the grounds that they simply can't afford it.   According to a recent ProPublica/USA Today article, only 27 states have applied for the money, while some of the most impoverished, like Louisiana, where one out of every five residents is in poverty, have not.

TANF is due for Congressional reauthorization in September 2010 and lawmakers will have the opportunity to reevaluate and fix its serious deficiencies. For starters Congress should eliminate the perverse incentive to keep eligible families off the rolls. Next, benefits must be at a level to enable families to pay for basic living necessities such as adequate food, shelter, clothing and utilities.

The picture painted by the recent Census figures is grim, if we dig deeper it’s probably worse than reported.   The United States certainly has the means to address this crisis, but we must build the political will to do so. Congress must address the crisis faced by poor American families with the same focus and vigor they expended saving the nation's financial industry. Letting banks fail was not an option the country could withstand; neither is letting poor families go hungry.  Given the latest Census numbers, reform can't come soon enough. 

For more information on the gender poverty gap and TANF reform, visit