The United States Census Bureau this week confirmed what many indicators have already shown: More Americans are among the poor, and middle class income continues to shrink. The stark figures underscore the weakness of the recovery from the recession and should send a message to Washington: The people of this country are hurting, and much more needs to be done to get the economy on the right path.
The number of those below the poverty line was the highest in the 52 years the statistic has been kept. According to the Census Bureau, 46.2 million people were below the line, about 15 percent of the population. But the poverty line — an annual income of $22,314 for a family of four — is set so low that millions more Americans are undoubtedly in dire straits, although not counted.
Relative wealth fell for all Americans in the last decade, though the drop was more pronounced at the lower end. The median household income went down to about $49,000. Pay fell by 12 percent since 1999 for low-wage earners. By comparison, the rich, those in the top 90th percentile, had an income drop of just 1.5 percent.
Unemployment, according to a census official quoted in a report in The New York Times on Tuesday, was largely responsible for the increased number of the poor. In 2010, she said, about 48 million people between the prime working ages of 18 to 64 did not work even one week. And 22 percent of children, the highest percentage in 18 years, are now in poverty.
President Obama’s proposed jobs bill might help a bit — if much of it could get through Congress — but this report suggests that far more than new payroll and business tax cuts and a modest infrastructure program is called for. A decade’s slide is not going to be reversed by these mostly temporary measures, though nonpartisan economic analysts have said it would do some good. The economic well-being of America’s poor and middle class now must be Washington’s priority. The census report should be a wake-up call.