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Busted Flat: 80 Percent of Americans Have Been Broke

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With the widening rich-poor gap and loss of manufacturing jobs, roughly 4 out of 5 people in the U.S. face near-poverty, joblessness or reliance on welfare at some point in their lives, according to new survey data provided exclusively to the Associated Press by Mark Rank, leading national expert on poverty and professor at Washington University.

The AP reports that nonwhites are approaching majority status in the U.S., which could affect whether public money to disadvantaged groups remains focused on affirmative action. Demographers have termed lower-income whites “the invisible poor,” dispersed in poor suburbs and rural areas. 

“It's time that America comes to understand that many of the nation's biggest disparities, from education and life expectancy to poverty, are increasingly due to economic class position,” said William Julius Wilson, a Harvard professor who specializes in race and poverty. “There is the real possibility that white alienation will increase if steps are not taken to highlight and address inequality on a broad front.”

Based on the current trend of income inequality, by 2030, close to 85 percent of all adults 18-60 years of age will experience bouts of economic insecurity, the AP reports.

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“Poverty is no longer an issue of ‘them’, it's an issue of ‘us’,” Rank said. “Only when poverty is thought of as a mainstream event, rather than a fringe experience that just affects blacks and Hispanics, can we really begin to build broader support for programs that lift people in need.”

The qualification for enduring near-poverty at least once in their lives refers to adults until age 60. This “means that this is a measure of economic conditions over decades that tells us little about the present day,” Wall Street Journalist columnist James Taranto clarifies.

While the current rate of poverty is 7.9 percent, the rate of “economic insecurity” rises to nearly 80 percent when the AP examined—over the course of an adult life to age 60—periodic joblessness for at least two weeks, reliance on government aid and an income below 150 percent of the poverty line.

Taranto argues that qualifying “near-poverty” at earning less than 150 percent of the poverty line is faulty logic, just like an 8-foot-9-inch man isn’t “near average” height.

Furthermore, someone can hit “near poverty” status “without actually being anywhere near poor,” Taranto writes. “The obvious example is an adult college student with a part-time or no job who subsists on parental or financial aid. His statistical ‘near poverty’ is actually a reflection of affluence, or at least opportunity.”