U.S. Poverty Rate Levels Off in New Report: UMD Expert

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Newly released U.S. Census figures show the poverty rate essentially leveled in 2011 – beating the expectations of many experts who had predicted a fifth straight increase, says Professor Douglas Besharov, an expert on poverty and welfare at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy.

According to the new figures, the overall poverty rate for 2011 was 15 percent, a statistically insignificant drop from the 15.1 percent the year before, says Besharov, who directs the school’s Welfare Reform Academy. The number broke a trend in which the poverty rate had risen 27.1 percent since 2006. In 2011, roughly 46.2 million people remained below the poverty line.

“Like most analysts, I was surprised by the good news that the official poverty rate has leveled off,” Besharov says. “But while this number is better than expected, it reflects only that families living on the edge of the poverty line haven’t slid further. A combination of factors including government assistance and the ability to work more hours – not necessarily make more money per hour – is helping buoy Americans. Still, they aren’t climbing back into the middle class.”

Besharov says the increase appears driven by three major factors:

  • The continued ability of unemployment insurance to compensate for lost wages;
  • The increase in work, possibly in the underground economy, and concomitant decrease in poverty among Hispanics, especially noncitizens, 500,000 of whom escaped poverty last year. “Remove them from the calculations and the official poverty rate would have increased to 15.2 percent,” Besharov says.
  • Across all demographic groups, the apparent ability of low-income workers to increase the number of hours worked even as total unemployment did not decline, especially in the South and suburbs.

A smaller factor seems to be that more people were sharing living quarters and hence expenses.


Professor Besharov has dedicated his career to analyzing public policy regarding families, poverty and welfare. He was an early proponent of welfare reform efforts in the 1990s that increased work requirements.

Besharov was the first director of the U.S. National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, from 1975 to 1979. From 1991 to 1992, he served as the administrator of the AEI/White House Working Seminar on Integrated Services for Children and Families, a project designed to improve the delivery of services to disadvantaged children and their families.

He has written or edited 15 books, including Recognizing Child Abuse: A Guide for the Concerned, which is designed to help professionals and laypersons identify and report suspected child abuse.

*Source: University of Maryland

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