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9 Economic Facts That Will Make Your Head Spin

Half the population of the U.S. has slipped into poverty or is barely making enough to get by.
 
 
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How much will you need for medical expenses in retirement? What does it cost to keep 2.5 million Americans behind bars? Here are a few facts and figures that might surprise you.

1. Recovery for the rich, recession for the rest.

Economic recovery is in rather limited supply, it seems. Research by economist Emmanuel Saez shows that the top 1 percent has enjoyed income growth of over 11 percent since the official end of the recession. The other 99 percent hasn’t fared so well, seeing a 0.4 percent decline in income.

The top 10 percent of earners hauled in 46.5 percent of all income in 2011, the highest proportion since 1917 – and that doesn’t even include money earned from investments. The wealthy have benefitted from favorable tax status and the rise in stock prices, while the rest have been hit with a continuing unemployment crisis that has kept wages down. Saez believes this trend will continue in 2013.

2. Half of us are poor or barely scraping by.

The latest Census Bureau data shows that one in two Americans currently falls into either the “low income” category or is living in poverty. Low-income is defined as those earning between 100 and 199 percent of the poverty level. Adjusted for inflation, the earnings for the bottom 20 percent of families have dropped from $16,788 in 1979 to just under $15,000. Earnings for the next 20 percent have been stuck at $37,000.

States in the South and West had the highest proportion of low-income families, including Arizona, New Mexico and South Carolina, where politicians are eagerly shredding the social safety net.

3. Unhappy meal.

46.7 million Americans must now use food stamps in order to get a meal, and many aren’t old enough to earn money for themselves. Almost half of all U.S. children will be on food stamps during some part of their childhood. For black children, that number is 90 percent.  Eight percent of those receiving food stamps are seniors.

The average monthly SNAP benefit (food stamps) per person is $133.85. That’s less than $1.50 per person, per meal. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2011, a gallon of milk cost $3.50 on average in the U.S. while a pound of stew beef cost $4.30. Food prices are expected to increase as much as 3 percent in 2013.

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4. Old age and poverty.

According to political scientist Kenneth Thomas, the U.S. has the dubious honor of having the highest elder poverty rate of any industrialized nation larger than Ireland. If poverty is measured as 50 percent of the median income, a whopping 25 percent of elderly Americans are considered poor.

Research shows that an increasing number of Americans are entering poverty in old age. The percentage of Americans ages 75 to 84 new to poverty doubled in 2009 from the 2005 figure. Most elderly Americans living in poverty have serious medical problems.

5. Incarceration nation.

Two and a half million Americans are currently under lock and key. That’s more than the population of Philadelphia, Houston, Phoenix or Dallas. More than the entire state of New Mexico. The U.S. has 5 percent of the world's population, but we have 25 percent of the world's prisoners.

The cost to taxpayers for keeping all these people behind bars is $63.4 billion a year. In some states, the cost of keeping a single prisoner is as much as $60,000 per year – about as much as it would take to pay for workers axed by austerity policies – like teachers, for instance.