Poverty levels by state, 2009; it's worse now (US Census Bureau)

The gains of the war on poverty have been almost totally wiped out. The Census Bureau will report that poverty will reach a 46-year high when they announce their numbers later in the fall.

The Associated Press surveyed more than a dozen economists, think tanks and academics, both nonpartisan and those with known liberal or conservative leanings, and found a broad consensus: The official poverty rate will rise from 15.1 percent in 2010, climbing as high as 15.7 percent. Several predicted a more modest gain, but even a 0.1 percentage point increase would put poverty at the highest level since 1965.

Poverty is spreading at record levels across many groups, from underemployed workers and suburban families to the poorest poor. More discouraged workers are giving up on the job market, leaving them vulnerable as unemployment aid begins to run out. Suburbs are seeing increases in poverty, including in such political battlegrounds as Colorado, Florida and Nevada, where voters are coping with a new norm of living hand to mouth.

“I grew up going to Hawaii every summer. Now I’m here, applying for assistance because it’s hard to make ends meet. It’s very hard to adjust,” said Laura Fritz, 27, of Wheat Ridge, Colo., describing her slide from rich to poor as she filled out aid forms at a county center. Since 2000, large swaths of Jefferson County just outside Denver have seen poverty nearly double.

The ranks of the poor have swelled in areas that have little infrastructure to deal with it, in particular the suburbs. With little need to erect anti-poverty programs in the past, municipal governments in suburban areas must now deal with a crush of poor individuals. And with the safety net endangered from attacks by Congress and a mania around the deficit, it’s unclear whether these municipalities will get the support they need from their states and the federal government in order to cope.

Of course, we’ve seen the country get more comfortable with poverty over the last thirty years. Since the Reagan Revolution, the poverty rate has never fallen below 11.1%, despite boom years in the 1990s. Those boom years occurred in parallel with the 1996 welfare reform bill, which has shown itself inadequate to handle growing needs during recessions. We have just seen on the farm bill both parties agree to cut food stamp benefits, with the only difference being one of degree. The poverty rate has become tolerable, a by-product of capitalism, a reflection of the permanent underclass that has taken hold in the current construction of the economy.

This report on poverty will be used largely as a talking point by each party, so they can seek office and implement their preferred economic programs, none of which have anything to do with singling out poverty for eradication. Both parties subscribe to the idea of a rising tide lifting all boats. And it’s true that a stronger economy will tend to reduce the poverty rate at the margins. But this elides the issue of a growing class of needy Americans who get neither the opportunity nor the benefits to lift themselves out of their current state.

Poverty may be a national disgrace, but it apparently does not at this point merit a national conversation in Washington, as sad as that sounds.