Poverty in the United States
Poverty in the United States refers to people who lack sufficient income or material possessions for their needs. Although the United States is a relatively wealthy country by international standards, poverty has consistently been present throughout United States, along with efforts to alleviate it
- With its broad sweep, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us into an unprecedented national emergency. This emergency, however, results from a deeper and much longer term crisis — that of poverty and inequality, and of a society that ignores the needs of 140 million people who are poor or a $400 emergency away from being poor. [...] We cannot return to normal. Addressing the depth of the crises that have been revealed in this pandemic means enacting universal health care, expanding social welfare programs, ensuring access to water and sanitation, cash assistance to poor and low income families, good jobs, living wages and an annual income and protecting our democracy. It means ensuring that our abundant national resources are used for the general welfare, instead of war, walls, and the wealthy. [...] Before COVID-19, nearly 700 people died everyday because of poverty and inequality in this country. The frontlines of this pandemic will be the poor and dispossessed - those who do not have access to healthcare, housing, water, decent wages, stable work or child care - and those who are continuing to work in this crisis, meeting our health care and other needs. It should not have taken a pandemic to raise these resources. In June 2019, we presented a Poor People’s Moral Budget to the House Budget Committee, showing that we can meet these needs for this entire country. If you had taken up this Moral Budget, we would have already moved towards infusing more than $1.2 trillion into the economy to invest in health care, good jobs, living wages, housing, water and sanitation services and more. This is not the time for trickle-down solutions. We know that when you lift from the bottom, everybody rises. There are concrete solutions to this immediate crisis and the longer term illnesses we have been battling for months, years and decades before. We will continue to organize and build power until you meet these demands. Many millions of us have been hurting for far too long. We will not be silent anymore.
- William Barber II and Liz Theoharis, letter to President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Members of the 116th Congress, Poverty Amidst Pandemic: A Moral Response to COVID-19 (March 19, 2020), Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival.
- The United States is the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, yet millions of American families have had to set up crowdfunding sites to try to raise money for their loved ones’ medical bills. Millions more can buy unleaded gasoline for their car, but they can’t get unleaded water in their homes. Almost half of America’s workers—whether in Appalachia or Alabama, California or Carolina—work for less than a living wage. And as school buildings in poor communities crumble for lack of investment, America’s billionaires are paying a lower tax rate than the poorest half of households. This moral crisis is coming to a head as the coronavirus pandemic lays bare America’s deep injustices. While the virus itself does not discriminate, it is the poor and disenfranchised who will experience the most suffering and death. They’re the ones who are least likely to have health care or paid sick leave, and the most likely to lose work hours. And though children appear less vulnerable to the virus than adults, America’s nearly forty million poor and low-income children are at serious risk of losing access to food, shelter, education, and housing in the economic fallout from the pandemic. The underlying disease, in other words, is poverty, which was killing nearly 700 of us every day in the world’s wealthiest country, long before anyone had heard of COVID-19. The moral crisis of poverty amid vast wealth is inseparable from the injustice of systemic racism, ecological devastation, and our militarized war economy. It is only a minority rule sustained by voter suppression and gerrymandering that subverts the will of the people. To redeem the soul of America—and survive a pandemic—we must have a moral fusion movement that cuts across race, gender, class, and cultural divides.
- Decades after Depression-era reforms, Wall Street fought successfully to deregulate the financial system, paving the way for the 2008 financial crash that caused millions to lose their homes and livelihoods. And the ultra-rich and big corporations have also managed to dominate our campaign finance system, making it easier for them to buy off politicians who commit to rigging the rules against the poor and the environment, and to suppress voting rights, making it harder for the poor to fight back. [...] Key to these rollbacks: controlling the narrative about who is poor in America and the world. It is in the interest of the greedy and the powerful to perpetuate myths of deservedness—that they deserve their wealth and power because they are smarter and work harder, while the poor deserve to be poor because they are lazy and intellectually inferior. It’s also in their interest to perpetuate the myth that the poverty problem has largely been solved and so we needn’t worry about the rich getting richer—even while our real social safety net is full of gaping holes. This myth has been reinforced by our deeply flawed official measurements of poverty and economic hardship.
- The way the U.S. government counts who is poor and who is not, frankly, is a sixty-year-old mess that doesn’t tell us what we need to know. It’s an inflation-adjusted measure of the cost of a basket of food in 1955 relative to household income, adjusted for family size—and it’s still the way we measure poverty today. But this measure doesn’t account for the costs of housing, child care, or health care, much less twenty-first-century needs like internet access or cell phone service. It doesn’t even track the impacts of anti-poverty programs like Medicaid or the earned income tax credit, obscuring the role they play in reducing poverty. In short, the official measure of poverty doesn’t begin to touch the depth and breadth of economic hardship in the world’s wealthiest nation, where 40 percent of us can’t afford a $400 emergency. In a report with the Institute for Policy Studies, the Poor People’s Campaign found that nearly 140 million Americans were poor or low-income—including more than a third of white people, 40 percent of Asian people, approximately 60 percent each of indigenous people and black people, and 64 percent of Latinx people. LGBTQ people are also disproportionately affected. Further, the very condition of being poor in the United States has been criminalized through a system of racial profiling, cash bail, the myth of the Reagan-era “Welfare Queen,” arrests for things such as laying one’s head on a park bench, passing out food to unsheltered people, and extraordinary fines and fees for misdemeanors such as failing to use a turn signal, and simply walking while black or trans.
- Even after you adjust for income and education, black Americans are more likely than any other group to live in neighborhoods with substantial pockets of poverty. Black Americans live with a level of poverty that is simply unknown to the vast majority of whites. It’s tempting to attribute this to the income disparity between blacks and whites. Since blacks are more likely to be poor, it stands to reason that they’re more likely to live in poor neighborhoods. But the fact of large-scale neighborhood poverty holds true for higher-income black Americans as well. Middle-class blacks are far more likely than middle-class whites to live in areas with significant amounts of poverty. Among today’s cohort of middle- and upper-class blacks, about half were raised in neighborhoods of at least 20 percent poverty. Only 1 percent of today’s middle- and upper-class whites can say the same. In short, if you took two children—one white, one black—and gave them parents with similar jobs, similar educations, and similar values, the black child would be much more likely to grow up in a neighborhood with higher poverty, worse schools, and more violence. This is an outright disaster for income mobility. Given their circumstances, blacks face a reversal of their gains over the last generation. Simply put, the persistence of poor neighborhoods is a fact of life for the large majority of blacks; it’s been transmitted from one generation to the next, and shows little sign of changing.
- And in terms of poverty and race in this country, again, you know, one of the things that I really, really wanted to stress is, the level of poverty specifically that you see in the African-American community is not accidental. It’s not accidental. This is part of the process. The process of enslavement involves stealing something from someone. It involves taking something from someone.
- One in five American children live in poverty, even as pundits tout employment highs.
- The plight of impoverished children anywhere should evoke sympathy, exemplifying as it does the suffering of the innocent and defenseless. Poverty among children in a wealthy country like the United States, however, should summon shame and outrage as well. Unlike poor countries (sometimes run by leaders more interested in lining their pockets than anything else), what excuse does the United States have for its striking levels of child poverty? After all, it has the world’s 10th highest per capita income at $62,795 and an unrivalled gross domestic product (GDP) of $21.3 trillion. Despite that, in 2020, an estimated 11.9 million American kids—16.2 percent of the total—live below the official poverty line, which is a paltry $25,701 for a family of four with two kids. Put another way, according to the Children’s Defense Fund, kids now constitute one-third of the 38.1 million Americans classified as poor and 70 percent of them have at least one working parent—so poverty can’t be chalked up to parental indolence.
- Imagine, for a moment, this scenario: a 200-meter footrace in which the starting blocks of some competitors are placed 75 meters behind the others. Barring an Olympic-caliber runner, those who started way in front will naturally win. Now, think of that as an analogy for the predicament that American kids born in poverty face through no fault of their own. They may be smart and diligent, their parents may do their best to care for them, but they begin life with a huge handicap. As a start, the nutrition of poor children will generally be inferior to that of other kids. No surprise there, but here’s what’s not common knowledge: A childhood nutritional deficit matters for years afterwards, possibly for life. Scientific research shows that, by age three, the quality of childrens’ diets is already shaping the development of critical parts of young brains like the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex in ways that matter. That’s worth keeping in mind because four million American kids under age six were poor in 2018, as were close to half of those in families headed by single women. Indeed, the process starts even earlier. Poor mothers may themselves have nutritional deficiencies that increase their risk of having babies with low birth weights. That, in turn, can have long-term effects on children’s health, what level of education they reach, and their future incomes since the quality of nutrition affects brain size, concentration, and cognitive capacity. It also increases the chances of having learning disabilities and experiencing mental health problems.
- Our national opioid problem also affects the well-being of children in a striking fashion. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 2008 and 2012, a third of women in their childbearing years filled opioid-based medication prescriptions in pharmacies and an estimated 14 percent–22 percent of them were pregnant. The result: an alarming increase in the number of babies exposed to opioids in utero and experiencing withdrawal symptoms at birth, which is also known as neonatal abstinence syndrome, or NAS, in medical lingo. [...] At this point, you won’t be surprised to learn that NAS and child poverty are connected. Prescription opioid use rates are much higher for women on Medicaid, who are more likely to be poor than those with private insurance. Moreover, the abuse of, and overdose deaths from, opioids (whether obtained through prescriptions or illegally) have been far more widespread among the poor.
- Can children born into poverty defy the odds, realize their potential, and lead fulfilling lives? Conservatives will point to stories of people who cleared all the obstacles created by child poverty as proof that the real solution is hard work. But let’s be clear: Poor children shouldn’t have to find themselves on a tilted playing field from the first moments of their lives. Individual success stories aside, Americans raised in poor families do markedly less well compared to those from middle class or affluent homes—and it doesn’t matter whether you choose college attendance, employment rates, or future household income as your measure. And the longer they live in poverty the worse the odds that they’ll escape it in adulthood; for one thing, they’re far less likely to finish high school or attend college than their more fortunate peers. [...] Yet childhood circumstances can be (and have been) changed—and the sorts of government programs that conservatives love to savage have helped enormously in that process.
- Our own history and that of other wealthy countries show that child poverty is anything but an unalterable reality. The record also shows that changing it requires mobilizing funds of the sort now being wasted on ventures like America’s multitrillion-dollar forever wars.
- Even before Donald Trump’s election, only one-sixth of eligible families with kids received assistance for childcare and a paltry one-fifth got housing subsidies. Yet his administration arrived prepared to put programs that helped some of them pay for housing and childcare on the chopping block. No point in such families looking to him for a hand in the future. He won’t be building any Trump Towers for them. Whatever “Make America Great Again” may mean, it certainly doesn’t involve helping America’s poor kids. As long as Donald Trump oversees their race into life, they’ll find themselves ever farther from the starting line.
- It has always been hard to measure poverty, because Poverty is as much a state of mind as a condition of material well-being. Still, we seem to have made a bad situation worse.
- This is rural America. We’re rich in self-sustaining nature and neighbors helping neighbors but we don’t have resources, I’ve got a car full of toys we’re taking to a school where 60 kids weren’t going to have Christmas. [...] Now they’re closing the coal-fired plants, and those tradesmen and -women are being thrown out of those highly skilled jobs, and it’s having a terrible impact.
- Robin L. Webb on the poverty increase in Carter County, Kentucky. As quoted in Poverty Grew in One-Third of Counties Despite Strong National Economy (December 19, 2019) by Tim Henderson, The Pew Charitable Trusts.