For the first time since the Great Recession threw the United States and then the world into an economic tailspin, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that the U.S. poverty rate experienced a year-over-year decline, falling from 15 percent in 2012 to 14.5 percent in 2013. The last time the rate declined similarly was 2006. Though an improvement, the 2013 U.S. poverty rate was still 2 percentage points higher than it was in 2007, the year before recession began.
According to the Census Bureau’s annual analysis of poverty and income in the United States, released Sept. 16, the number of men and women working full-time, year-round with earnings increased by 1.8 million and 1.0 million, respectively, between 2012 and 2013. Even better news was a substantial reduction in America’s child poverty rate, which fell from 21.8 percent in 2012 to 19.9 percent in 2013. The number of children in poverty declined from 16.1 million to 14.7 million. This was the first time since 2000 that the child poverty rate declined.
The report suggests that there is plenty of reason to remain concerned with poverty in the United States. While the tick downward for U.S. poverty was a small bit of welcome news, the overall number of people in poverty was unchanged at 45.3 million—about one third are children—and real median household income remained stagnant for the second year in a row, suggesting that average Americans are still waiting for relief years after the nation’s economic recovery began in 2009. Household income has yet to recover from the vast economic downturn of 2008, and in 2013 was 8.0 percent lower than in 2007. At $51,939 the median income measure was 8.7 percent lower than the household income peak of $56,895 that occurred in 1999.
Hispanic Americans were the only group among the major race and ethnic groups tracked by the Census Bureau to experience a statistically significant change in their poverty rate and the number of people in poverty. For Hispanics, the poverty rate fell from 25.6 percent in 2012 to 23.5 percent in 2013, while the number of Hispanics in poverty declined from 13.6 million to 12.7 million.
Catholic Charities USA in its annual survey reports a parallel slight decline in the number of Americans who have asked it for help. Catholic Charities agencies and affiliates make up one of the largest networks of social service providers in the country, operating more than 2,500 sites across the country. The agency reports that in 2013 it served just over 9 million “unduplicated clients.” According to CCUSA’s annual survey, that number represents a decrease from the number of people it assisted at the peak of the recession, but the 2013 figure remains nearly 17 percent more than the number of people who asked for assistance in 2007, “demonstrating the continued impact of the Great Recession on the nation’s most vulnerable.”
Indeed, while absolute client numbers went down, those who did come to CCUSA offices had more needs. In 2013, Catholic Charities USA reported 17.3 million health, education, nutrition, housing and other services to clients across 31 categories—the highest number of services ever recorded. CCUSA President and CEO Father Larry Snyder told America that request for food assistance represented the largest need CCUSA offices fielded in 2013.
He said the new census data and CCUSA’s own tracking indicate some modest good news about the state of the economy but cautioned “the people we’re serving have greater needs” and worried over an increase in the number of seniors, some for the first time, coming to CCUSA for assistance. More people may have found jobs as the nation’s recovery continues, he said, but many of them are now earning wages that are far below what they had been receiving before the recession.
Father Snyder plans to step down from his position at Catholic Charities in February, but before he goes he is leading a national effort to change the mind-set of the social service provider. He wants to move it away from a strategy of merely responding to emergency needs and begin more integrated and comprehensive management of clients that will begin to move them out of poverty permanently. “How you approach people has a lot to do with it. The government programs we help administer look at people in their deficits and their needs and use a one-size-fits-all approach. We’re trying to create a system that adjust to the individuals, that looks at what assets they have in relation to their needs and decides what’s the plan to help them get out of poverty instead of what will just help them survive.”
That may sound familiar to fans of Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan. That’s because, Father Snyder hastens to point out, Congressman Ryan developed his plan for combatting generational poverty by studying the successful “case management” approach employed by Catholic Charities in Wisconsin.
“I think that he has listened to us,” said Father Snyder, “and he’s incorporated things that have the potential to be game changer.
“Do we think it’s a perfect plan? No, but I do think there are things in it that Democrats are afraid to touch and that are definitely going to take a Republican to do.”
Owing to the manner government service grants are deployed, CCUSA offices often had a narrow palette of service options—food stamps or housing assistance, for example—to offer to clients. Father Snyder now hopes to see a network wide acceptance of a case-management approach to client requests that builds a comprehensive individualized response to a specific client’s needs and assets, rather than simply respond to their short-term need.
“Although we are certainly a big part of the nation’s safety net, and we will always be that,” he said, “what we’re trying to do is to really look, not just at providing the services that will help people survive, … but [at] the bigger question for us as providers: How do we help people thrive? How do we help people get out of poverty?”