The Census Bureau reported today that the nation’s poverty rate was unchanged at 15.0% in 2011 and that 46.2 million people lived in poverty, also not statistically different from 2010, a pattern change after three consecutive years of increase in both numbers. How do Americans describe their own economic circumstances, and how much priority do they give to helping the needy? A number of recent Pew Research Center reports are relevant to the national debate about poverty and economic well-being.

In addition to releasing the 2011 poverty rate, the Census Bureau also published new data today on household income ($50,054, a 1.5% decline in real terms from 2010) and the share of Americans without health insurance (15.7%, a decline from 16.3% who were uninsured in 2010). Pew Research Center reports over the past year have explored—among other topics—Americans’ attitudes about their own financial circumstances and their financial futures, as well as their views about the presidential candidates’ policies on poverty. Among them:

  • A report on the “lost decade of the middle class” finds that over the past decade the middle class has shrunk in size, fallen backward in wealth (as well as income) and is somewhat less optimistic about the future. The report is based on census data as well as a nationally representative survey of adults. Fully 85% of self-described middle-class adults say it is harder now than a decade ago to maintain a middle-class standard of living.
  • Among Americans who self-identify as lower class, according to a Pew Research Center Survey, 84% say they had to cut household spending in the previous year, 64% had trouble paying bills, and 45% say they had trouble getting medical care or paying their rent or mortgage. Some of these problems have grown since a 2008 Pew Research Survey asked similar questions.
  • A report called “Yes, the Rich are Different” finds that three-quarters of adults (76%) agree with the following statement: “Today it’s really true that the rich just get richer while the poor get poorer.” The report also compares attitudes on the presidential candidates’ policies toward the wealthy, middle class and poor, and it examines whether Americans believe the rich, middle class and poor pay their fair share of taxes.
  • Last year’s Census Bureau release included a negative milestone, confirming that more Latino children lived in poverty than children of any other major race or ethnic group. It marked a change since the Great Recession began in 2007, when white children in poverty were the most numerous group. In 2011, Hispanic children in poverty (6 million) continued to outnumber poor children from other minoritygroups. (Note that the Census Bureau this year revised some 2010 numbers slightly based on new information from the 2010 Census.) The Census Bureau also reported today that Hispanics overall were the only major race or ethnic group to experience a statistically significant decline in poverty from 2010 to 2011;  the rate was 25.3% in 2011 and 26.5% in 2010.
  • A Pew Hispanic Center survey in 2011, the same year for which the Census Bureau just released statistics, found that most Latinos (54%) say the economic downturn has been worse for them than for other groups in the U.S. About half or more reported that a household member was unemployed and looking for work, that their personal finances were in “fair” or “poor” shape, or that they had canceled or delayed a major purchase in the past year.
  • How poverty rates are calculated is one focus of a Pew Research Center analysis that explored the history of the government’s poverty data and attempts to improve it. The Census Bureau has been tinkering with an alternative metric, the so-called Supplemental Poverty Measure, which is intended to be more inclusive of the costs of basic living expenses and the resources people have to pay for them. As a Pew Research Center report summarizing last year’s report on this alternative metric shows, poverty rates were higher under the alternative measure for Hispanics, non-Hispanic whites and Asians, but lower for blacks. The Census Bureau will update this measure for 2011 in November.
  • The role of health insurance in supplying middle-class status is important to most Americans, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. Two-thirds (66%) say people need health insurance to be considered part of the middle class; a higher 86% say a secure job is needed to be part of the middle class. In general, older adults are more likely than younger ones to believe that health insurance is a middle-class requirement, and Democrats are more likely than Republicans or independents to say so.
  • As the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press reported in June, Americans’ support for a social safety net has diminished in recent years. Today, just 43% agree that the government should help more needy people, even if it means going deeper in debt, nearing the 25-year low of 41% from 1994.
  • What are the public’s priorities for the president and Congress? An annual report from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, published just before the president’s State of the Union address in January, finds that 52% of Americans say helping the poor and needy is a top priority.
  • The share of Americans in multi-generational households has grown rapidly, and a Pew Research Center report indicates that multi-generational living may protect people against poverty. The poverty rate among people in multi-generational households is smaller than for those in other households, and the effect is especially notable for the unemployed, or for other groups vulnerable to the impact of the Great Recession.
  • Is there conflict between rich and poor in America? According to a 2011 Pew Research Center survey, taken as the Occupy Wall Street movement was in the news, two-thirds of Americans (66%) say there are “strong” or “very strong” conflicts between the rich and the poor.