Another 2.6 million people slipped into poverty in the United States last year, the Census Bureau reported Tuesday, and the number of Americans living below the official poverty line, 46.2 million people, was the highest number in the 52 years the bureau has been publishing figures on it.
And in new signs of distress among the middle class, median household incomes fell last year to levels last seen in 1997.
Economists pointed to a telling statistic: It was the first time since the Great Depression that median household income, adjusted for inflation, had not risen over such a long period, said Lawrence Katz, an economics professor at Harvard.
''This is truly a lost decade,'' Mr. Katz said. ''We think of America as a place where every generation is doing better, but we're looking at a period when the median family is in worse shape than it was in the late 1990s.''
The bureau's findings were worse than many economists expected, and brought into sharp relief the toll the past decade -- including the painful declines of the financial crisis and recession --had taken on Americans at the middle and lower parts of the income ladder. It is also fresh evidence that the disappointing economic recovery has done nothing for the country's poorest citizens.
The report said the percentage of Americans living below the poverty line last year, 15.1 percent, was the highest level since 1993. (The poverty line in 2010 for a family of four was $22,314.)
Sabrina Tavernise, New York Times, September 14, 2011
When all is said and done, if we can ever get beyond the grand-standing, the bloviating, the harumphing and the chest-pumping, the awful truth is that millions and millions of American citizens are now among the chronically hurt because of the current no-fault-of-their-own economic crisis, exacerbated by the current we'll blame them anyway political climate.
Families are hurting. Our elders are hurting. Children are hurting. Future generations will be hurting. We've let yesterday slip by and tomorrow shows no great promise. The time to do something is now.
Everybody knows that something must be done, but what keeps the wheels from turning, from moving us forward, is an ongoing, time-wasting argument about how best to appear to be saving the country while saving face, saving precious personal skins, saving the privileged elite.
There is no point wasting time talking about past history -- a couple of centuries worth of the same mistakes, the same indulgences at the top, the same misery at the bottom -- when nobody is in the mood to learn from it.
We have now become one of those countries known throughout the world for deliberate cruelty to its own citizens -- the kind of despised country whose citizens we ourselves would have taken pity on not so long ago.
While it may be true that unprecedented numbers of America's children have experienced hunger or homelessness (or a desperate, unrequited need for health care) it's cruel to pretend that no single sweet child of ours is affected. We're masters at shutting our eyes to real, live, scared and suffering kids.
It's cruel to play games with needed unemployment benefits by pretending they're one more example of undeserved governmental handouts to the lazy or misbehaving.
It's cruel to humiliate the jobless even more by pretending that anyone without a job isn't looking hard enough.
It's cruel to pretend that outsourcing and off-shoring have nothing to do with the loss of millions of life-sustaining jobs.
It's cruel to pretend that workers don't need or deserve representation when the need is so much greater now.
It's cruel for the richest country in the world to give private insurance companies the power to deny anyone health care and pretend that people aren't dying because of it.
It's cruel to allow profiteers to attempt to kill off one major historic source of national pride -- public education for every child without regard to race, creed, or income level -- and pretend that a) the public schools did it to themselves and b) no child is being left behind because of our negligence.
It's cruel to divert our national treasure, including and especially our young men and women, to foreign wars that don't concern us or affect us nearly as much as our own at-home social and economic wars.
But the cruelest reminder is that we almost had it in our grasp -- a fair and prosperous country we could be proud of -- and we let it slip away.
There's no pretending it didn't happen. There are enough of us still around who remember a different country, where it looked as if the American Dream would actually become a major possibility. It was taken away from us, not by happenstance but by the mean and deliberate actions of politicians and power brokers.
You can say it a million different ways, but what it comes down to is cruelty by a thousand cuts. There was a time when we all would have fought against that sort of thing. I'll say it again: This is some strange new century...