Poverty in America

It’s hard to imagine that a superpower such as the United States, a land of vast resources and great innovation, should have poverty within its borders. When we do imagine it, we may attribute poverty in such a rich land as a function of effort or merit: they are poor because they don’t ‘lift themselves by their bootstraps,’ because ‘they dropped out of school,’ because they are ‘lazy,’ or because ‘they are on drugs.’ The truth is quite different.

The causes of poverty are complex. Millions of employed Americans are considered living below the poverty line. In the USA poverty is defined by the Federal government’s ‘poverty threshold.’ For a family of four, that threshold is an income of $25,700 a year. The Federal minimum wage in the USA is $7.25/hour, which does not allow for people to climb out of poverty. In fact, the current minimum wage is not a ‘living’ wage: working 40 hours per week at minimum wage only provides an income of about $15,000/year before taxes. Not earning a ‘living’ wage is one reason for poverty in the USA.

Forty million Americans (12.2% of the US population) find themselves living below the poverty line. In 2018 – before the pandemic – more than 1 out of 10 Americans were food insecure (unsure about where their next meal world come from). Once people find themselves in poverty, getting out of it may be a very slippery slope. Poverty begets poverty: a child born in poverty has a very tough time getting out of poverty as they grow up. Almost 1 in 6 children in the United States live in poverty. Good nutrition and schooling are two important aspects enabling children to succeed, and these are among the two things most impacted by poverty. Malnutrition impacts health and productivity, thus impacting schooling and forward progress. Poverty impacts access to transportation, access to resources (such as the internet, computers or and smart phones) and the personal connections that are often necessary in finding a job. And so, the vicious cycle of poverty continues, with few people being able to break out.

Poverty does not impact all Americans the same way.  Poverty impacts:

Women more than men.

Single parent families more than married couple families.

Single parent females more than single parent males.

The disabled more than the able bodied.

Transgenders more than heterosexuals or homosexuals.

The educated more than the uneducated.

Native Americans more than whites or Asians.

African Americans more than whites or Asians.

Hispanics more than whites or Asians.

Southerners more than northers.

Seniors more than non-seniors.

The Covid-19 pandemic has had its harshest impact on the poor. Everything from good nutrition and good health care, to access to vaccines, to the ability for social distancing, is impacted by poverty. Between  May and October 2020, some 8 million people were thrust into poverty due to pandemic lockdowns and the end of funding support (the CARES Act). The move to offering schooling remotely has put more poor children are at risk. Not only do they not have access to the technology needed to complete schooling, but they also suffer greater levels of food insecurity with the loss of school food programs. Note that food insecurity impacts those living under the poverty level,  but also those subsisting barely above poverty levels (the median income in the United States is $35,000/year only about $10,000 more than those living under the poverty level). Approximately 38 million Americans (12 million of whom are children) are food insecure defined by the US Department of Agriculture as “a lack of consistent access to enough food for a healthy active lifestyle.” 

What can you do? Poverty USA offers a list of ideas how you can help, from those that take very little time, to things that require more time.  Visit: https://www.povertyusa.org/alerts to learn more. While poverty in the United States is nowhere near as severe as it is in other regions of the world, we do have the resources to make poverty a thing of the past in the USA.  In fact, our poverty levels had been slowly declining for 6 years prior to the pandemic.

You can make a difference!