Living in Poverty: 40 Million Americans, Including Children and Working Poor

If the word "poverty" conjures up starving children in Africa, prepare to be shocked: nearly 40 million Americans, or 13.2% of the population in the richest country on the planet, lived at or below the official poverty level in 2008, according to new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's an increase of 2.5 million over 2007.

What's more, that figure includes 14.1 million people under the age of 18, or 19% of all children, up from 13.3 million and 18% in 2007. In other words, nearly one in five American kids live in poverty.

One of the fastest-growing impoverished segments is the "working poor," adults who spent at least 27 weeks either in the labor force or looking for work. Of the 39.8 million Americans living at or below the poverty level in 2008, some 8.9 million adults were defined as the "working poor," an increase of 1.4 million from 2007.Additionally, 4.5 million families were counted among the working poor in 2008, up from 4.2 million in 2007.

The new data reinforce the toll the Great Recession has taken on working families and the poor across the United States. After three years of annual income increases, the real median household income declined by 3.6% between 2007 and 2008, from $52,163 to $50,303, the Census bureau found.

Worst Numbers Yet to Come

In New York State alone, more than 2.6 million people -- including 852,000 children -- live in poverty, according to the New York Community Action Association. In Albany, the state capitol, 25.3% of the city's population and 35.9% of its children live in poverty.

What exactly is poverty? In 2008, the average poverty threshold for a family of four was $22,025, according to the Census Bureau. Labor Department economist Jim Borbely, the study's author, said the department is currently compiling the 2009 figures for release early next year.

In spite of the already dismal numbers, it looks like the worst news is yet to come. "With the onset of the recession in 2008, the deterioration of the economy played a major role in the increase," Borberly told DailyFinance. "There will probably be an increase in these figures next year because 2009 was either just as bad or a little bit worse than 2008 for the labor market."

Facts About the Working Poor

Here are some of the other major findings of the report:

• Among people who worked for 27 weeks or more in 2008, 3.9% of those usually employed full time were classified as working poor, compared with 13.7% of part-time workers.

• Black and Hispanic workers continued to be more than twice as likely as White or Asian workers to be poor.

• The likelihood of being classified as working poor greatly diminishes as workers attain higher levels of education. In 2008, only 1.7% of college graduates who were in the labor force for at least 27 weeks were among the working poor, compared with 18.3% of those with less than a high school diploma.

• Among families with at least one member in the labor force for 27 weeks or more, those families with children under 18 years old were more than 4 times more likely than those without children to live in poverty.

• Women who maintain families were more than twice as likely as their male counterparts to be among the working poor.