Who Are The American Poor? See How The Demographics Of Poverty Have Shifted Over 50 Years

January 16, 2014  |  

It’s been 50 years since Lyndon B. Johnson declared a war on poverty. And while things have changed, poverty certainly hasn’t been eliminated. In comparison to 1967, poverty in 2012 has fallen to 15 percent from 19 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Adjusting for historical inflation, Columbia University researchers say poverty dipped to 16 percent from 26 percent. It’s a so-so improvement, but experts are more intrigued by who is poor and how this has changed over five decades, Pew Research reports.

Most Americans who are poor are between the ages of 18 and 64. The problem is, according to the study, is the percentage of poor Americans in this age range has risen from 41 percent in 1959 to 57 percent in 2012.

The elderly, on the other hand, have seen better financial progress. Back in 1966, 27 percent of Americans over the age of 65 were poor. In 2012, that figure plummeted to just over nine percent.

Despite the fact the elderly population has nearly doubled over 50 years, there were 1.2 million fewer poor aging Americans in 2012. Researchers applaud Social Security benefits for this steep drop in poverty.

Child poverty was at its worst in 1959 — nearly 30 percent of kids under the age of 18 were poor. It dropped at its lowest in the 1970s at around 15 percent, but now America’s child poverty rate is climbing back up at around 23 percent. Experts believe that the 2007/2008 economic downturn is the culprit behind the rise of impoverished children.

There have also been changes in the structure of the poor family. In 1973 — the earliest year that has compiled this data — about 51 percent of poor households were headed by a married couple; nearly 45 percent were led by women. In 2012, more than half (5o.3 percent) of poor households are female-headed; 39 percent are led by married couples.

Based on geographic location, the West — California, Arizona, Idaho, etc. — once had the lowest number of poor Americans at about 15 percent in 1969. Now that crown has been passed on to the Northeast at 16 percent. In 2012, “poverty is more evenly distributed,” Pew Research says, but “still heaviest in the South.”

There is good news, too! Poverty among Black Americans has fallen dramatically. Back in 1966, 42 percent of African-Americans were plagued by poverty. In 2012, that figure has dropped to 27.2 percent. This figure, however, is double the poverty rate of Whites which stands at 12.7 percent — 1.4 percentage points higher than 1966.

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