The percentage of Americans struggling below the poverty line in 2009 was the highest it has been in 15 years, the Census Bureau reported Thursday, and interviews with poverty experts and aid groups said the increase appeared to be continuing this year.
With the country in its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, 4 million additional Americans found themselves in poverty in 2009, with the total reaching 44 million, or 1 in 7 residents. Millions more were getting by only because of expanded unemployment and other assistance.
And the numbers could have climbed higher: One way embattled Americans have gotten by is sharing homes with siblings, parents or even nonrelatives, sometimes resulting in overused couches and frayed nerves but holding down the rise in the national poverty rate, according to the report.
The share of residents in poverty climbed to 14.3 percent in 2009, the highest level recorded since 1994. The rise was steepest for children, with 1 in 5 affected, the bureau said.
The report provides the most detailed picture yet of the impact of the recession and unemployment on incomes, especially at the bottom of the scale. It also indicated that the temporary increases in aid provided in last year’s stimulus bill eased the burdens on millions of families.
For a single adult in 2009, the poverty line was $10,830 in pretax cash income; for a family of four, $22,050.
Given the depth of the recession, some economists had expected an even larger jump in the poor.
“A lot of people would have been worse off if they didn’t have someone to move in with,” said Dr. Timothy M. Smeeding, director of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin.
Smeeding said that in a typical case, a struggling family, like a mother and children who would be in poverty on their own, stayed with more prosperous parents or other relatives.
The Census study found an 11.6 percent increase in the number of such multifamily households over the past two years. Included in that number was James Davis, 22, of Chicago, who lost his job as a package handler for FedEx in February 2009. As he ran out of money, he and his 2-year-old daughter moved in with his mother about a year ago, avoiding destitution while he searched for work.
“I couldn’t afford rent,” he said.
Danise Sanders, 31, and her three children have been sleeping in the living room of her mother and sister’s one-bedroom apartment in San Pablo, Calif., for the past month, with no end in sight. They doubled up after the bank foreclosed on her landlord, forcing her to move.
“It’s getting harder,” said Sanders, who makes a low income as a mail clerk. “We’re all pitching in for rent and bills.”
Reporting was contributed by Rebecca Cathcart in Los Angeles, Emma Graves Fitzsimmons in Chicago, Malcolm Gay in St. Louis and Malia Wollan in San Francisco.