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Seesaw Economy: Nearly One in Three Dipped Into Poverty

In America’s new normal, plenty of Americans will tumble into poverty at some point – but few will be stuck there forever.
Image: Jessmynda Dosch-Evangelista experiences cycles of poverty
Jessmynda Dosch-Evangelista, 22, exemplifies the unstable nature of people on the low end of the economic spectrum. At one point she was relying completely on social services, but then she got a job and now she’s actually worse off financially because her hours are unstable. Still, she said she prefers to not be on welfare even if it puts her in a more precarious financial position.Matt Wittmeyer / for NBC News

In America’s new normal, plenty of Americans will tumble into poverty at some point – but few will be stuck there forever.

Nearly one in three Americans experienced a stint of poverty between 2009 and 2011, a new Census Bureau report finds, but only a fraction of those people were stuck below the poverty line for the entire three-year period.

“There’s a lot of movement in and out of poverty,” said Ann Stevens, director of the Center for Poverty Research at UC Davis.

That’s partly due to the weak recovery, in which one small victory can push someone above the poverty line – but another setback can shove that person right back down.

“I hear people say ‘paycheck to paycheck’ and I think, ‘Oh my God, that would be great.’”

But it’s also because of a longer-running trend toward lower skilled, low-paying jobs. Permanent, good paying jobs are largely going to the highly skilled and highly educated, while many of the rest are living on a knife-edge of economic ruin, where even living paycheck to paycheck seems like a luxury.

“I hear people say ‘paycheck to paycheck’ and I think, ‘Oh my God, that would be great,’” said Jessmynda Dosch-Evangelista, above.

The 22-year-old from Wellsville, N.Y., makes $5 an hour plus tips at her part-time job as a server at a pizza chain. She rarely knows how many hours she’ll be working, or how much money her customers will leave on the table.

That means she also rarely knows whether she’ll make enough to pay the rent or put food on her own table.“It’s not even month to month. It’s week to week or night to night,” she said.

The Census Bureau report found that 31.6 percent of Americans were in poverty for least two months between 2009 and 2011, compared to 27.1 percent of Americans between 2005 and 2007. The recession ran from late 2007 to mid-2009.

Those who fell below the poverty line also stayed there longer. The median length a person spent below the poverty line was 6.6 months between 2009 and 2011, as compared to 5.7 months between 2005 and 2007.

This narrower look at monthly poverty statistics is different from the Census Bureau’s annual poverty report, which looks at the share of the population whose total annual income fell below the poverty threshold for the year. For a single person, the annual poverty threshold was $11,720 in 2012. For a family of four including two children, it was $23,283.

Needing help

The prevalence of short bouts of poverty helps explain why some people who appear to have the trappings of a more economically secure life – such as a nice car, a home or a flat-screen TV – may also suddenly need help making ends meet.

“You would expect them to have in their households the signs of not having been poor a couple of years ago,” said Arloc Sherman, senior researcher with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning think tank.

It also explains why, in recent years, so many Americans have had to rely, at least for a few months, on programs such as unemployment benefits or food stamps.

That’s been the case with Dosch-Evangelista.

Image: Jessmynda Dosch-Evangelista experiences cycles of poverty
Jessmynda Dosch-Evangelista, 22, is hoping to land a second job that would allow her to pay her bills more regularly, but in the meantime her financial stability varies from week to week.Matt Wittmeyer / for NBC News

During a good period, she said, she might be scheduled for plenty of shifts and bring in enough tips to feed herself and her cat, plus buy necessities like soap and toilet paper.

But then come the bad periods, like the one right before the holidays in which she said she didn’t get any shifts at all for a while and had to turn to social services for emergency help with her $435-per-month rent.

Even when things are good, Dosch-Evangelista has little wiggle room in her meager budget.

She doesn’t have a car and tries to avoid even taking the bus, preferring to walk if she can to save the 50-cent fare. She rarely goes out with friends, but is too ashamed of her apartment to have people over.

The report also showed that a large number of people who got out of poverty didn’t make it that far up the economic ladder, and were just barely above the poverty line.

“A lot of people either experience poverty or skate very close to the line,” Sherman said.

Risky situation

Dosch-Evangelista said that financially, she was better off when she was getting cash assistance. She still gets benefits through SNAP, the modern food stamp program, but she said she is proud to have a job and not be accepting cash aid except in extreme emergencies.

“I’d rather work a crappy job and take the risk from week to week of losing my apartment than be on welfare, and I’m hoping that says something about me,” she said.

She’s hoping that her situation will improve when she starts a second job helping out with basic duties at an area group home. She expects the pay will be minimum wage, but the extra hours should mean more money each month.

In the long run, she hopes to finish college and eventually start an agency to help people like herself, who were adopted in their late teens. She’s currently taking a break from school because of the financial stress, but she’s confident that she will get back to college eventually.

“I’m not rosy-eyed about it, but I’m optimistic, I guess,” she said of the future. “I’m trying to be realistic.”