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The Working Poor

More than two-thirds of all poor families with children included one or more individuals who worked in 2003. What’s more, family members in working-poor families with children typically worked combined totals of 46 weeks per year.

The U.S. Census Bureau defines poor families as those with cash incomes of less than $14,680 a year for a family of three – or $18,810 for a family of four. In 2003, the average poor family had an income of $8,858, or $738.00 per month.

Since 2000 – the last year before unemployment began to rise – the number of people in poverty has risen by 4.3 million, median income has fallen by $1,535 after adjustment for inflation, and the number of people with no health insurance has increased by 5.2 million.

In 2003, those who were poor became poorer on average – with the number of people living in extreme poverty, that is, with incomes below half the poverty line, climbing by 1.2 million, to 15.3 million people. The number of Americans living in extreme poverty reached the highest level on record, since data first became available in 1975.

The average amount by which poor people’s incomes fell below the poverty line was greater in 2003 than any other year since recordkeeping began in 1975. The average amount by which the poor fell below the poverty line was $3,018 per person in 2003.

A single parent of two young children working full-time in a minimum wage job for a year would make $10,712 before taxes - a wage $3,968 below the poverty threshold set by the federal government. (U.S. Department of Labor; U.S. Census Bureau.)

About 40 percent of poor single-parent, working mothers who paid for child care paid at least half of their income for child care; an additional 25 percent of these families paid between 40 and 50 percent of their incomes for child care. (Child Trends, 2001.)

While the Census figures reveal a significant number of Americans living in poverty, many experts feel that the measures used by the federal government drastically underestimate the real scale of poverty in America - primarily because the official poverty thresholds are considered "too low." Many experts believe a more realistic poverty threshold for a family of four would be in the area of $30,000 a year - and that a more accurate estimate of the poverty rate in America would be 30% of the total population. (Economic Policy Institute, 2001.)

Opportunities for those trying to work their way out of poverty are dwindling; by September 2003, 2.1 million American jobless workers - nearly a quarter of the total unemployed population - had been out of work for half a year or more - the highest level in 20 years. (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, October 2003.)

Copyright © 2004 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, D.C. Used with permission. All rights reserved. Please visit our website at


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