The Struggles of The 'Near Poor,' A Larger Than Expected Group

The New York Times and the Census Bureau teamed up to discover how many people are holding on, just above poverty. The answer: even more than they'd feared.

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The New York Times and the Census Bureau teamed up to discover how many people are holding on, just above poverty. The answer: even more than they'd feared.

There are about 100 million Americans — one third of the population — either living in poverty, or "in the fretful zone just above it," The Times reports, based on a number-crunching the Census bureau did at the newspaper's request. It's an attempt to quantify a mood with which politicians, journalists, academics and policy wonks are confronted daily. While census figures show there are millions of people living officially in poverty, the segment of the population that feels its share of the national wealth is slipping away feels far larger.

That's the 51-million-strong 'near poor,' who tend to live in suburbs, and have some of the accouterments of a middle-class life (like cars), just not the security that might be expected to come with it.

Demographically, they look more like “The Brady Bunch” than “The Wire.” Half live in households headed by a married couple; 49 percent live in the suburbs. Nearly half are non-Hispanic white, 18 percent are black and 26 percent are Latino.

Perhaps the most surprising finding is that 28 percent work full-time, year round. “These estimates defy the stereotypes of low-income families,” Ms. Renwick said.

Among them is Phyllis Pendleton, a social worker with Catholic Charities in Washington, who proudly displays the signs of a hard-won middle-class life. She has one BlackBerry and two cars (both Buicks from the 1990s), and a $230,000 house that she, her husband and two daughters will move into next week.

Combined, she and her husband, a janitor, make about $51,000 a year, more than 200 percent of the official poverty line. But they lose about a fifth to taxes, medical care and transportation to work — giving them a disposable income of about $40,000 a year.

Adjust the poverty threshold, as the new measure does, to $31,000 for the region’s high cost of living, and Ms. Pendleton’s income is 29 percent above the poverty line. That is to say, she is near poor.

While the phrase is new to her, the struggle it evokes is not.

“Living paycheck to paycheck,” is how she describes her survival strategy. “One bad bill will wipe you out.”

Some of the experts quoted in The Times' piece don't like the phrase "near poor." If not that, the One Bad Bill demographic might make an acceptable substitute. This reflects back toward some of the conversation that have happened — or nearly happened — on the national political stage in recent years, particularly in the fight over health care reform. Before the arguments devolved into spats over parliamentary procedure ("deem and pass," anyone?) and allegations of socialism, the pressures of medical cost offered an angle for national consideration of the plight of not just the deeply impoverished but also those who felt they were on the way to winding up there.

Not everyone bought the economic argument, which said more than 60 percent of bankruptcies were related to medical debt. Anti-single-payer commentators said healthcare bankruptcy was a myth. Attorneys who filed bankruptcies disagreed.

The bridge between the Tea Party and the Occupy movement may most obviously be anger and frustration, but it's born out of anxiety. These findings give a more empirical sense of where that anxiety comes from, and why it's not crazy even if some of its expression might be. Owning a Buick, even two, doesn't make you middle class. And it doesn't mean you're wrong to feel like you're just one bad bill from going over the edge.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.