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Fail to raise New Jersey’s minimum wage, and state legislators would be surrendering in the "war on poverty" launched by President Lyndon Johnson nearly 50 years ago, according to state Sen. Barbara Buono.
Urging her colleagues to support the wage hike, Buono (D-Middlesex) claimed on the Senate floor Thursday that poverty in America is at its highest level since 1964. With Buono’s support, the Senate passed a bill to raise the minimum wage to $8.50 per hour and implement annual cost-of-living increases.
"Across our nation, the number of Americans living at or below the poverty line is at its highest level since President Johnson gave his State of the Union address in 1964, when he launched a war on poverty and he promised the nation that he would not rest until that war was won," Buono said. "Well today, in this very moment, if we fail to act, we must acknowledge that we surrendered."
It’s accurate to say the latest official poverty rate represents one of the highest levels since 1964, but Buono is wrong to call it the "highest level." During the past five decades, there have been a few years when the rate was the same or higher than the most current estimate.
The official poverty rate stands at 15 percent of the U.S. population in 2011, or about 46.2 million people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the official federal source of poverty statistics. The bureau released that estimate in September.
Individuals and families are considered "in poverty" if their total income falls below certain thresholds. For example, a family of five, including two children under 18 years old, would be considered in poverty if its income was less than $27,517, according to the bureau.
The 2011 rate marks a slight reduction from the official poverty rate in 2010, when 15.1 percent, or about 46.3 million people, were living in poverty, according to the bureau. But the 2011 figures were not statistically different from those in 2010, the bureau said.
Those recent estimates were higher than in most other years since 1964 -- when the official poverty rate was 19 percent -- but not every year.
The official poverty rates were 15.1 percent in 1993; 15.2 percent in 1983; 15 percent in 1982; and 17.3 percent in 1965. So, the official poverty rates recorded in those four years were the same or higher than the levels seen in 2010 and 2011.
A spokeswoman for Buono did not respond to three e-mails outlining our findings.
It’s also worth noting that, during the past few decades, concerns have been raised about the methodology behind the official poverty rate, leading government officials to create an alternative measurement called the Supplemental Poverty Measure, or SPM.
Based on the SPM, 16.1 percent of the population, or nearly 49.7 million people, were living in poverty last year, according to the bureau. The SPM is not intended to replace the official estimate, but instead provide "further understanding of economic conditions and trends," the bureau said.
During a debate over raising the state’s minimum wage, Buono claimed "the number of Americans living at or below the poverty line is at its highest level since" 1964.
The latest official poverty rate -- 15 percent in 2011 -- does represent one of the highest levels since 1964, but there have been a few years in the past five decades when the rate was the same or higher than the most current estimate.
We rate the statement Mostly True.
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New Jersey Legislature website, Senate session, Nov. 29, 2012
Census Bureau, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2011, September 2012
Census Bureau, Table 2. Poverty Status, by Family Relationship, Race, and Hispanic Origin, accessed Nov. 30, 2012
Census Bureau, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage: 2011 Webinar, September 12, 2012
Census Bureau, The Research: Supplemental Poverty Measure: 2011, November 2012
E-mail interview with Christina Zuk, chief of staff for Sen. Barbara Buono, Nov. 30, 2012
National Public Radio, How America's Losing The War On Poverty, Aug. 4, 2012
Associated Press, US poverty on track to rise to highest since 1960s, July 22, 2012
PolitiFact, Tavis Smiley says "one out of two Americans … are living either in or near poverty", April 23, 2012
PolitiFact, Gingrich says more Americans are in poverty today than at any time since the statistic was first calculated, Nov. 9, 2011
National Poverty Center, Poverty in the United States: Frequently Asked Questions, accessed Nov. 30, 2012
The Hill, Census: Poverty rate remains stuck at its highest level since 1993, Sept. 12, 2012
Interview with Robert Bernstein, spokesman for the Census Bureau, Nov. 30, 2012
The Star-Ledger, N.J. Senate approves bill to raise minimum wage to $8.50 per hour, Nov. 29, 2012
Assembly Bill A-2162, Increases minimum wage to $8.50, then makes annual adjustments based on CPI increases, passed by the Senate on Nov. 29, 2012
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