The “Near Poor”

Income Inequality and the Difference a New Lens Can Make

The U.S. Census Bureau has looked into its categories for income, and discovered: “100 million people — one in three Americans — either in poverty or in the fretful zone just above it.”

Responding to a request for more data from The New York Times, the Bureau discovered that its old measures of poverty did not do an adequate job.  “There are more people struggling than the official numbers show,” commented the Bureau’s Chief Poverty Statistician.

The Times noted that “the findings . . . convey levels of economic stress sharply felt but until now hard to measure.” (See, “Older, Suburban and Struggling, ‘Near Poor’ Startle the Census.”)

The important point is that, apart from unemployment figures, it has been very hard to see the true extent of the impact of The Great Recession on the poor.  But more and more of the signs are adding up to a more complete picture.  Retail sales figures released last week show “the divide between hard-pressed and prosperous Americans remained a defining characteristic of the retail economy.”

The Chairman and CEO of Saks noted:  “I feel good about the luxury consumer.”  On the other hand, the Chairman and CEO of Walmart, noted: “Our customers are still feeling pressured to reduce expenses wherever they can.” “Referring to the Wal-Mart shopper’s dependence on paychecks and government-assistance payments rather than savings,” he added, “going forward we really would not expect anything different.” (See, Retailers See a Split in Behavior of Shoppers.”)

Far more disturbing is the growing evidence that this difference is hardening into a permanent gap among the communities in which we live. According to a new study by Stanford University: “The portion of American families living in middle-income neighborhoods has declined significantly since 1970 . . . as rising income inequality left a growing share of families in neighborhoods that are mostly low-income or mostly affluent.”

The study noted that “children in mostly poor neighborhoods tend to have less access to high-quality schools, child care and preschool, as well as to support networks or educated and economically stable neighbors who might serve as role models.”  One effect is a “growing gap in standardized test scores between rich and poor children, now 40 percent bigger than it was in 1970. That is double the testing gap between black and white children,” according to one of the authors of the study. (See, “Middle-Class Areas Shrink as Income Gap Grows, New Report Finds.”)

As neighborhoods become more tightly stratified, that also has an impact on the identities of the children growing up in them.  They know they are “poor,” and “disadvantaged.”  Less is expected of them, and they come to expect less of themselves.

William Julius Wilson, a sociologist at Harvard who has seen the study, argues that “rising inequality is beginning to produce a two-tiered society in America in which the more affluent citizens live lives fundamentally different from the middle- and lower-income groups.

Different neighborhoods, different schools, different expectations mean that it will be increasingly difficult for us to see each other, and to grasp the fact that we actually live in one nation.