WASHINGTON — Working-age America is the new face of poverty.
Counting adults 18-64 who were laid off in the recent recession as well as single twenty-somethings still looking for jobs, the new working-age poor represent nearly 3 out of 5 poor people — a switch from the early 1970s when children made up the main impoverished group.
While much of the shift in poverty is due to demographic changes — Americans are having fewer children than before — the now-weakened economy and limited government safety net for workers are heightening the effect. Currently, the ranks of the working-age poor are at the highest level since the 1960s, when the war on poverty was launched. When new census figures for 2010 are released next week, analysts expect a continued increase in the overall poverty rate due to persistently high unemployment last year.
If that holds true, it will mark the fourth year in a row of increases in the U.S. poverty rate, which now stands at 14.3 percent, or 43.6 million people.
"There is a lot of discussion about what the aging of the baby boom should mean for spending on Social Security and Medicare. But there is not much discussion about how the wages of workers, especially those with no more than a high school degree, are not rising," said Sheldon Danziger, a University of Michigan public policy professor who specializes in poverty.
Census numbers show that out of 8.8 million families who are currently poor, about 60 percent had at least one person who was working.
"The reality is there are going to be a lot of working poor for the foreseeable future," Danziger said, citing high unemployment and congressional resistance to raising the minimum wage.
The current poverty level was set at $10,956 for one person and $21,954 for a family of four, based on an official government calculation that includes only cash income, before taxes.
Demographers expect next week's poverty report to show:
• A rise in working families who are low income, to nearly 1 in 3. "Low income" is defined as those making less than 200 percent of the poverty threshold, or about $43,000 for a family of four.
• Larger numbers of people who are uninsured, due to slightly higher rates of unemployment on average in 2010.
• Blacks and Hispanics disproportionately hit, based on their higher rates of unemployment.