Today I learned I’m officially living in poverty. Not only that, I’ve been in poverty for the past three years. I’d like to argue. After all, my husband and I have about half a million dollars in retirement accounts. We have no debt. I live in a nice home on two acres of property in what was once rural King County south of Seattle, Wash. The area has devolved into an odd mix of upscale homes, cows grazing on cramped acres, tiny sixties vacation cabins, and huge swaths of cheek-to-jowl box houses. My neighbors are Boeing engineers, lawyers and computer analysts.
And yet, according to the Census Bureau, I belong with the 42.6 million people living in poverty in the United States. Since 2007, the poverty rate in the U.S.has increased by 2.6 percentage points according to Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2010 released Sept. 13 by the Bureau. My family is one of those absorbed into that statistic during the past three years.
How did that happen? The answer lies in another set of statistics. Unemployment in the construction industry stands at 13.5% according to a Sept. 2 report from the U.S. Department of Labor. That number has nudged 30 percent or higher in some areas of the country, and it doesn’t really reflect the over two million construction jobs lost during the recession, making it the hardest hit segment of the U.S.economy. Nor does that figure reflect the numbers of construction workers who have taken other jobs as janitors or burger flippers or who have given up searching for work.
My husband owns a structural engineering firm. At its peak, he employed nine full-time workers. Now, two workers crunch numbers amidst a shell of empty offices. I’m a writer. Our income has slid from six figures to a parade of negative numbers and a steady drawn-down of our savings.
Does that make us poor? According to the Census Bureau it does. The government sets the 2010 poverty level for a family of four at an income of $22,314, far above any dollars we’ve seen for three years. Yet we still own an Infiniti G-35 (parked indefinitely in the garage), and I drive a Prius—both paid for in cash before the collapse. My children’s future college tuition is paid for through the GET program, again funded in the before time. So it bemuses me to read that I’m in poverty. And I wonder how many of the other 46.2 million people here with me are in similar circumstances. Do they have college educations and steady work histories, too? Were they assured they’d made responsible choices by funding their retirements and children’s educations, avoiding debt and buying health insurance? Like me are they wondering if they’d been better off buying three TVs and taking out two mortgages and flying to Europe? Because now we’re all down here together. Officially in poverty.