I started this current series to discuss what is wrong with our country and what we need to do to fix it. While I have discussed some of the topics that I will be including in this series, they have been included in other articles. In this series I will concentrate on a single topic. This will also mean that some of the articles may be slightly shorter than my readers have grown accustomed to, however they will still be written with the same attention to detail. This series will have no set number of articles and will continue to grow as I come across additional subjects.
11 Top Causes of Global Poverty
Around 8% of the world’s population lives in extreme poverty — but do you know why? We look at 11 of the top causes of global poverty.
Living on less than $2 a day feels like an impossible scenario, but’s a reality for around 600 million people in our world today. Approximately 8% of the global population lives in extreme poverty, commonly defined as surviving on only $1.90 a day, or less
There is some good news: In 1990, that figure was 1.8 billion people, so serious progress has been made. While many wonder if we can really end extreme poverty, we at Concern believe the end is not only possible — but possible within our lifetimes. There’s no “magic bullet” solution to poverty, but understanding its causes is a good first step. Here are 11 of those causes, fully revised for 2020.
1. INEQUALITY AND MARGINALIZATION
“Inequality” is an easy, but sometimes misleading term used to describe the systemic barriers leaving groups of people without a voice or representation within their communities. For a population to escape poverty, all groups must be involved in the decision-making process — especially when it comes to having a say in the things that determine your place in society. Some of these may be obvious, but in other situations, it can be subtle.
Gender inequality, caste systems, marginalization based on race or tribal affiliations are all economic and social inequalities that mean the same thing: Little to no access to the resources needed to live a full, productive life. When combined with different combinations of vulnerability and hazards which comprise the rest of this list — a marginalized community may become even more vulnerable to the cycle of poverty.
Conflict is one of the most common forms of risk driving poverty today. Large-scale, protracted violence that we’ve seen in areas like Syria can grind society to a halt, destroying infrastructure and causing people to flee (often with nothing but the clothes on their backs). In its tenth year of conflict, Syria’s middle class has been all but destroyed, and over 80% of the population now lives below the poverty line.
But even small bouts of violence can have huge impacts on communities that are already struggling. For example, if farmers are worried about their crops being stolen, they won’t invest in planting. Women also bear the brunt of conflict, which adds a layer of inequality to all conflict: During periods of violence, female-headed households become very common. And because women often have difficulty getting well-paying work and are typically excluded from community decision-making, their families are particularly vulnerable.
3. HUNGER, MALNUTRITION, AND STUNTING
You might think that poverty causes hunger (and you would be right!), but hunger is also a cause — and maintainer — of poverty. If a person doesn’t get enough food, they’ll lack the strength and energy needed to work (or their immune system will weaken from malnutrition and leave them more susceptible to illness that prevents them from getting to work).
The first 1,000 days of a child’s life (from womb to world) are key to ensuring their future health and likelihood of staying out of poverty. If a mother is malnourished during pregnancy, that can be passed on to her children, leading to wasting (low weight for height) or stunting (low height for age). Child stunting, both physical and cognitive, can lead to a lifetime of impacts: Adults who were stunted as children earn, on average, 22% less than those who weren’t stunted. In Ethiopia, stunting contributes to GDP losses as high as 16%.
ADULTS WHO WERE STUNTED AS CHILDREN EARN, ON AVERAGE, 22% LESS THAN THOSE WHO WEREN’T STUNTED. IN ETHIOPIA, STUNTING CONTRIBUTES TO GDP LOSSES AS HIGH AS 16%.
4. POOR HEALTHCARE SYSTEMS — ESPECIALLY FOR MOTHERS AND CHILDREN
Extreme poverty and poor health often go hand in hand. In countries where health systems are weak, easily preventable and treatable illnesses like malaria, diarrhea, and respiratory infections can be fatal — especially for young children. And when people must travel far distances to clinics or pay for medicine, it drains already vulnerable households of money and assets, and can tip a family from poverty into extreme poverty.
For some women, pregnancy and childbirth can be a death sentence. In many of the countries where Concern works, access to quality maternal healthcare is poor. Pregnant and lactating mothers face a multitude of barriers when seeking care, from not being allowed to go to a clinic without a male chaperone to receiving poor or even abusive care from a doctor. This is especially true for adolescent girls aged 18 and under, leaving mothers-to-be and their children at increased risk for disease and death.
5. LITTLE OR NO ACCESS TO CLEAN WATER, SANITATION, AND HYGIENE
Currently, more than 2 billion people don’t have access to clean water at home. This means that people (which is to say, women and girls) collectively spend some 200 million hours every day walking long distances to fetch water. That’s precious time that could be used working, or getting an education to help secure a job later in life.
Contaminated water can also lead to a host of waterborne diseases, ranging from the chronic to the life-threatening. Poor water infrastructure — such as sanitation and hygiene facilities — can compound this, or create other barriers to escaping poverty, such as keeping girls out of school during menstruation.
6. CLIMATE CHANGE
Climate change creates hunger, whether through too little water (drought) or too much (flooding), and its effects contribute to the cycle of poverty in several other ways including disproportionately affecting women, creating refugees, and even influencing conflict. One World Bank estimates that climate change has the power to push more than 100 million people into poverty over the next decade.
Many of the world’s poorest populations rely on farming or hunting and gathering to eat and earn a living — for example, Malawi is 80% agrarian. They often have only just enough food and assets to last through the next season, and not enough reserves to fall back on in the event of a poor harvest. So when climate change or natural disasters (including the widespread droughts caused by El Niño) leave millions of people without food, it pushes them further into poverty, and can make recovery even more difficult.
7. LACK OF EDUCATION
Not every person without an education is living in extreme poverty. But most of the extremely poor don’t have an education. There are many barriers to education around the world, including a lack of money for uniforms and books, a bias against girls’ education, or many of the other causes of poverty mentioned here.
But education is often referred to as the great equalizer, because it can open the door to jobs and other resources and skills that a family needs to not just survive, but thrive. UNESCO estimates that 171 million people could be lifted out of extreme poverty if they left school with basic reading skills. Poverty threatens education, but education can also help end poverty.
8. POOR PUBLIC WORKS AND INFRASTRUCTURE
Imagine that you have to go to work, but there are no roads to get you there. Or heavy rains have flooded your route and made it impossible to travel. A lack of infrastructure — from roads, bridges, and wells, to cables for light, cell phones, and internet — can isolate communities living in rural areas. Living off the grid often means living without the ability to go to school, work, or the market to buy and sell goods. Traveling further distances to access basic services not only takes time, it costs money, keeping families in poverty.
Isolation limits opportunity. Without opportunity, many find it difficult, if not impossible, to escape extreme poverty.
ISOLATION LIMITS OPPORTUNITY.
9. LACK OF GOVERNMENT SUPPORT
Many people living in the United States are familiar with social welfare programs that people can access if they need healthcare or food assistance. But not every government can provide this type of help to its citizens — and without that safety net, there’s nothing to stop vulnerable families from backsliding further into extreme poverty. Ineffective governments also contribute to several of the other causes of extreme poverty mentioned above, as they are unable to provide necessary infrastructure or healthcare, or ensure the safety and security of their citizens in the event of conflict.
10. LACK OF JOBS OR LIVELIHOODS
This might seem like a no-brainer: Without a job or a livelihood, people will face poverty. Dwindling access to productive land (often due to conflict, overpopulation, or climate change) and overexploitation of resources like fish or minerals puts increasing pressure on many traditional livelihoods. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for example, most of the population lives in rural communities where natural resources have been plundered over centuries of colonial rule — while conflict over land has forced people away from their source of income and food. Now, more than half of the country lives in extreme poverty.
11. LACK OF RESERVES
All of the above risk factors — from conflict to climate change or even a family illness — can be weathered if a family or community has reserves in place. Cash savings and loans can offset unemployment due to conflict or illness. Proper food storage systems can help if a drought or natural disaster ruins a harvest.
People living in extreme poverty usually don’t have these means available. This means that, when a risk turns into a disaster, they turn to negative coping mechanisms, including pulling children out of school to work (or even marry), and selling off assets to buy food. That can help a family make it through one bad season, but not another. For communities constantly facing climate extremes or prolonged conflict, the repeated shocks can send a family reeling into extreme poverty and prevent them from ever recovering.
Why is there so much poverty in the US?
Within the United States more than 40.6 million people live in poverty. Some of the many causes include income inequality, inflation, unemployment, debt traps and poor education. The vast majority living in poverty is uneducated people that end up increasing more unemployment and crime.
Why does poverty still exist?
Poverty also exists because of bigger systems: changing market demand for skills or labour, gaps in social safety nets, the high costs of education and health, or because of systemic discrimination. Poverty exists for all these interlocking reasons and is compounded by the interaction of causes and effects.
There is no single cause of poverty. Rather, there are multiple causes that are linked and compounding. Poverty can strike during an unexpected crisis: a serious health problem, job loss, or divorce. These crises can be particularly debilitating when compounded by other risk factors such as low education, limited skills training, lack of savings, or lack of family supports. Poverty can result from personal struggle – physical, mental, or emotional – and many people experiencing poverty are faced with a lack of emotional, psychological or financial support. Poverty also exists because of bigger systems: changing market demand for skills or labour, gaps in social safety nets, the high costs of education and health, or because of systemic discrimination. Poverty exists for all these interlocking reasons and is compounded by the interaction of causes and effects.
U.S. Poverty Statistics
The following chart shows poverty statistics of various groupings of the American population. The highest category experiencing poverty is “adults not working” at 29% of their population. The data is presented from the highest category of people experiencing poverty to the lowest. The data is from the U.S. Census Bureau [i].
Change in Poverty Rate From The Prior Year
The U.S. poverty rate increased to 11.4% in 2020 from 10.5% in 2019. Prior to 2020, the poverty rate had fallen each year for six years from 14.8% in 2014. The poverty rate of 10.5% in 2019 was the lowest recorded rate since the Census Bureau began reporting the poverty level in 1959.
The Coronavirus Epidemic caused an economic shutdown throughout much of 2020. As shown in the chart to the left, full-time workers dropped in 2019, and part-time and not working adults increased. This lead to an increase in the poverty level in 2020.
Ever since the poverty level has been tracked in the United States there has been a stubborn 10% of the population in poverty.
Full U.S. poverty statistics are shown below:
The statistics below were generated from data reported by the U.S. Census Bureau including the annual report on income and poverty released in September 2021 [i]. Overall, the total population of the U.S. was 325.7 million in 2020 and 37.2 million Americans were in poverty. Therefore, the overall Poverty Rate for the year 2020 was 11.4%.
U.S. Poverty Statistics – Age of the Population
The Poverty Rate for seniors was 9.0% which is lower than the population as a whole of 11.4%. This is due to the Social Security and Medicare Programs which have worked well at protecting seniors from poverty. Seniors in a poverty status generally did not work ten or more years and pay enough taxes into the Social Security system to generate an adequate retirement pension.
The child Poverty Rate is 16.1%, therefore, about one in six children are in poverty. This is a disturbing poverty statistic to many Americans because children are helpless to influence their living conditions. Many of these children live in single-parent families as shown below.
U.S. Poverty Statistics – Race
While the poverty rate for the population as a whole is 11.4% the rate varies greatly by race. Blacks have the highest poverty rate at 19.5% and Non-Hispanic whites the lowest at 8.2%.
The Poverty rate for Blacks and Hispanics is more than double that of non-Hispanic Whites.
U.S. Poverty Statistics – Families
Overall 8.7% of the families in America are in poverty. Families headed by a single female have a Poverty Rate of 23.5% – five times higher than married-couple families.
There are 15.5 million families headed by a single mother which represents 19% of all families in America. But 3.6 million of these single mom families are in poverty which accounts for an astounding 50% of all the families in poverty. These statistics are the basis for the conclusion that marriage is one of the best defenses against poverty.
U.S. Poverty Statistics – Population in families
Overall there are 263.4 million Americans in families and 62.3 million as single heads of households. Just under 9.6% of those in families are in poverty versus 19.1% of those living alone.
U.S. Poverty Statistics – Working-Age Adults
Adults that work full time have a low Poverty Rate of 1.6%, which is not surprising. The 2.3 million full-time workers that are in poverty generally have low-paying jobs, such as a minimum wage job paying $16,000 per year, and have two or more children thus pushing the family into poverty.
There are 45.3 million adults between the ages of 18 and 64 (working age) that are not working. They total 23% of working-age adults but account for 63% of working-age adults in poverty.
U.S. Poverty Statistics – Disability
14.6 million working-age adults have a disability which represents 7% of the workforce [ii]. They have a Poverty Rate of 25.0%. While this is a high rate of poverty it is less than the nonworking adult rate of 28.8%.
U.S. Poverty Statistics – Residence
The Poverty Rate for those living in cities is slightly less than for those living in rural areas. Many Americans would guess low-income Americans are disproportionately from metropolitan areas but that is not the case.
U.S. Poverty Statistics – Nativity and Citizenship
Foreign-born non-citizens have a Poverty Rate of 17.8% – almost twice as high as foreign-born, naturalized citizens.
These citizens make up 7% of the U.S. population but account for 11% of all Americans in poverty.
Foreign-born naturalized citizens had a Poverty Rate of 9.2% which is slightly less than the population as a whole of 11.4%.
U.S. Poverty Statistics – Educational Attainment
The educational level attained by individuals has a dramatic impact on poverty. 24.7% of adults over 25 years old without a high school diploma are in poverty versus 4.0% for those with a college degree.
Unemployment Rate Compared to Poverty Rate
The graph to the right shows the poverty level compared to the unemployment rate since 1964 [vii]. Even in times of low unemployment, the poverty level has never dropped below 10% of the population. It appears as though jobs and opportunity alone do not explain a stubborn 10% of the population in poverty. This is in fact the case, as shown below in the reasons people in poverty are not working.
Analysis of Working-Age Adults In Poverty
In 2020 there are 20.6 million working-age adults (adults 18-64 years of age) in poverty. 63% did not work in the year and another 29% spent worked part-time or spent at least part of the year out of the workforce. Only 8% of working-age adults in poverty worked full time. People working full-time jobs who are in poverty have low-paying jobs and a family size that puts them and their spouses and children in poverty. For example, a spouse working a $10.00 an hour full-time job would earn approximately $20,800 in a typical work year which is below the poverty threshold for a family of four of $26,496. Individuals working part-time or seasonal jobs also often don’t make enough to raise their income above the poverty threshold.
Why Those In Poverty Are Not Working
The following is an analysis of the poverty statistic of “Adults not working.” There are 11.3 million working-age adults in a poverty status in 2019 that did not work in the year. The chart to the left shows their reason for not working [iii].
- School. Students are generally young and just getting started in life. It makes sense they would not have an annual income greater than the poverty threshold and be labeled as being in poverty. However, even though students are often in poverty they are usually on a path to getting a good job which moves them out of poverty.
- Retired early. Individuals who retire early (below age 65) and are seeking no new income most likely have past earnings and pensions that are adequate for their lifestyle. Poverty status measures annual income only and does not take into account assets acquired in the past.
- Disabled or ill. This is a broad class of individuals who have mental or physical disabilities preventing them from working. This category can include those who are not capable of earning a living by themselves, such as a down syndrome adult. The category also includes individuals that are prevented from working in their trade because of a physical injury. To return to the workforce these individuals require training or education in a different trade.
- Home or Family. This is a very broad category of poverty and includes a variety of reasons why the individual is not working. It includes those taking care of a sick parent, those with limited child care options, and those with addiction, homelessness, or other more extreme challenges. This category of poverty is usually not a problem of job availability but of circumstances preventing the individual from working.
- Can’t find work. This represents 6% of the poverty population of working-age adults not working and can be attributed to the job market in the location where the individual lives.
Opportunity and Poverty
What do the poor want more welfare or more opportunity? Here is the answer.
The chart at the left shows the poverty statistic entitled the turnover rate of poverty [iv]. 27.5% of those in poverty in 2013 remained in poverty in 2016; 72.5% escaped poverty over the three-year period. About 26% had income over 200% of the poverty threshold in 2016 [v]. Therefore, many in a poverty status achieve upward mobility and join the middle class.
Over one-third of Blacks in poverty in 2013 were in poverty for the entire four-year reporting period from 2013 to 2016.
The chart to the right shows the dynamics of families in poverty for the four-year period from 2013 to 2016 [vi]. 29.1% of all married-couple families in poverty in 2013 remained in poverty in 2016; the others escaped poverty by 2016. About a third of all single-mother families remained in poverty over the four-year period and about two-thirds of these families escaped poverty in 2016.
How is Poverty Measured in the U.S.?
Poverty in the US is measured in terms of the federal poverty line. The poverty line is a threshold level. In other words, a level of income which you are either above (out of poverty) or below (in poverty). The poverty line varies for how many people are in a household. In 2018, the federal poverty line was $12,140 for an individual, $16,460 for a family of two, $20,780 for a family of three, and $25,100 for a family of four.
Where does the poverty line come from?
It sounds odd to say, but the poverty line is all about food.
First developed in 1965, just as the war on poverty was getting underway, the poverty line is based on the idea that at the time a typical family spent one third of its monthly budget on food. Mollie Orshansky, an economist working with the US Social Security Administration, used the US Department of Agriculture’s estimate of how much a minimum nutritional diet would cost in 1965, and then multiplied it by three to get the budget that a family would need in order to get by. Her goal was to find out the minimum a family would need to survive for a couple months in the case of an emergency. To this day, the poverty line is generated the same way: the USDA publishes the estimated cost of a minimally nutritional diet, then that is multiplied by three – and then we assume that families can live with this little income for years on end.
Even if you accept a monetary measure for poverty (more on that below), this approach has some real problems.
For starters, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the portion of a family’s budget spent on non-food items like housing has skyrocketed since the 1960’s. In 2016, Americans spent closer to 12% of their budget on food, rather than the 33% that the poverty threshold assumes . This means that a family earning three times the cost of a minimal healthy diet today is only covering 36% of their monthly expenses, and as a result probably going hungry. Even a family earning twice the poverty line is probably not getting by. To get a real measure of how much a family needs to earn, you should multiply the cost of the minimal healthy diet by eight, not three.
The general absurdity of the national poverty guidelines is widely recognized. But changing them would have far-reaching political implications on social welfare programs, so there is little chance of improvement any time soon.
In the meantime, a growing movement has been looking beyond the very idea that income is the best way to understand poverty in the first place.
Poverty is multidimensional
This is all about the US poverty line – but it isn’t the only poverty line out there. The World Bank and United Nations measure poverty as $1.95 a day, for instance. This is what comes up when folks talk about the Sustainable Development Goals and ending global poverty and extreme poverty.
In recent years though, more and more researchers and policymakers have been realizing that poverty is about more than just income.
Take that World Bank measure of $1.95 for instance. Very few Americans live with less money than that (though some researchers would argue that a surprising number still do). Does that mean that someone sleeping on the streets on a cold winter night is not struggling with poverty? Poverty is about access to housing, food, healthcare, good schools, safe communities, and a living wage. Poverty is about rights, about participation, about discrimination. Poverty is multidimensional.
What are those different dimensions of poverty? This is the newest frontier in anti-poverty work today.
In 2017 and 2018, ATD Fourth World partnered with Oxford University to conduct a groundbreaking study in this vein: identifying the multidimensional aspects of poverty with the real experts on poverty, those who live it every day and who work alongside them.
Using a research approach called “Merging Knowledge,” we organized over 20 peer groups in six areas across the US, ranging from major metropolitan areas like New York and Oakland, to rural areas like Appalachia and the Navajo reservation outside Gallup, New Mexico.
The result is a new approach to understanding poverty by looking at nine key aspects of poverty:
- Disadvantaged Areas
- Work- and Employment-Related Hardships
- Lack of Adequate Health and Well-being
- Stigma & Shame
- Social Isolation
- Unrecognized Voice & Participation
- The Struggle
The main definition of subjugation is “power over individuals and communities.” In the United States, a dominant segment in society exploits and takes advantage of other people, wielding power over individuals, communities, and sovereign Native American nations. This phenomenon seems connected to the role of hatred, the trauma of genocide, slavery, and segregation in the history of America and to the myth of the American dream – If you work hard, you will be successful – a dream that is inaccessible for people at the bottom of the social scale in a country characterized today by its lack of social mobility.
Subjugation creates and supports dehumanization across a wide spectrum that goes from criminalization of people experiencing poverty to passive acceptance of the fact that no one cares about those people.
“If you don’t consider me worth something, it is easier to take advantage of me.”
Subjugation is also linked to a tolerance of the idea that some people are worthy and others are worthless. The label those people, when talking about people living in poverty, is a mark of dismissed identity. This distinction is embodied in U.S. society through oppression, exclusion, systemic violence, institutional practices, discriminatory policies, and a refusal to honor the history of communities.
Subjugation is evident in all forms of attacks based on origin, address, who you are, who you are perceived to be, and so forth, preventing people from advancing or succeeding.
Poverty-based subjugation flourishes because of the mistaken perception that there is no commonality of morals and values between the middle class and the lower social classes, with the middle class having a higher standard and the lower having little or none; that higher income corresponds with higher morals and values, while lack of income or low income confirms the absence of morals and values.
This results in violence being perpetrated both against people experiencing poverty and within their communities; deprivation of a political voice in the form of representation or enfranchisement; denial of access to a safe, clean living environment with adequate resources; removal of possessions; constraints on and violations of freedom of choice; and pitting one against another to keep power in the hands of the few and maintain the social hierarchy.
“By purpose, people are put in one place to keep them apart.”
“They build forced communities based on income. The concentration of poverty creates broken communities.”
“You are always under somebody’s thumb.”
“When you get involved in the social system, you don’t have voice or choice anymore.”
“The system is not designed to evolve out of it. It keeps us in a constant phase of being below. The system put you in a situation and blames you for this situation. It is sometimes like you have to steal your way out of poverty.”
Subjugation results in unfair and inequitable treatment and refusal to give protection under the law. Some people in poverty are forced to resist subjugation because they don’t have what they need to survive, but this resistance is often criminalized, further advancing the cycle of violence.
“The police don’t go after people in wealthy areas.”
“The only choices you have are bad choices.”
Some people are forced to live in specific areas where there is a concentration of very hard aspects of life: these are the disadvantaged areas.
“We are forced to the Bottom”
The geographic concentration of the aspects of poverty not only worsens the consequences of poverty; it constitutes an aspect of poverty by itself.
Disadvantaged areas can be found in both urban and rural parts of the United States. They are a direct result of policy, and in some instances a deliberate creation of policy. These communities are under-resourced in many ways, including lack of jobs (high rates of unemployment and underemployment), underfunded and failing schools, food deserts, failing infrastructure, residential segregation, lack of access to any health care or affordable health care, lack of political representation, and poor water and air quality (presence of chemicals and lead) affecting the health of people living there. Some describe this as “a state of psychological warfare” where a person’s mind is broken down, where there’s resentment and an inability to function.
“They put you in a crappy place, don’t give enough services and ‘hopefully’ you die in this crappy place because that’s all you deserved.”
Disadvantaged areas are at the same time over-policed and under-policed: a heavy law-enforcement presence views the people living in these areas as criminal or suspect (the “broken windows” theory; “the racism and criminalization that occurs in public spaces”) ; yet police intervention is missing when residents of these areas become victims of crime and need help. Some rural disadvantaged areas are experiencing population drops because the people who can leave go elsewhere to seek out more opportunities — jobs, health care, and better education for their children. In urban areas, people in distressed communities face less and less affordable housing and more and more gentrification, seeing housing improvements that they know are not meant for them and that push them out of their communities as rents increase. This has led to an increasing homeless population and homeless encampment in some major cities.
In both rural and urban disadvantaged areas, residents face location-based stigma, prejudice, and judgment.
“You live there so you must be like that”
They also experience discrimination when they seek employment and give their zip code and area code, which can show where they live. This stigmatizing environment creates division within the community, with some people adopting respectability politics by distancing themselves from their peers to be better accepted by society at large. These dynamics increase the shame felt by some people and leads others to internalize their pain, suffering in silence.
“You are stuck in a place. You don’t choose or pick a place. It’s chosen for you and you have to deal with it.” “You are not good enough.”
There is a high incidence of drug and alcohol use in both rural and urban distressed areas. The residents see this as not just a symptom of the area, but as an attack on them, themselves: they feel preyed upon and taken advantage of. People in rural areas where there is a high incidence of opioid use have questioned why doctors prescribe opioids so freely when they know there is a problem in the area. In urban areas, they question why so many liquor store permits are given out by the local government for their neighborhoods as opposed to other neighborhoods, “…making it look almost inviting” . In both rural and urban areas, residents recognize that businesses become more “friendly” to them on the 1st and 15th of the month, when people receiving government subsidies usually receive their benefits; indeed, they notice that prices in local stores slightly increase on those dates.
The families living in these areas become fragile because of the constant struggle to sustain themselves and survive in an area where “lack of” is the only thing in abundance. This struggle also causes families to face added scrutiny of their parenting skills when people assume that they do not know how to adequately care for their children, as opposed to there not being enough resources to help care for children. This heightened scrutiny adds an extra layer of anxiety for heads of households — both women and men, in urban and rural communities — who fear that their children might be taken away. The trauma-induced stress caused by living in these areas can have lifelong effects, even if a person is able to move to a more economically stable area.
Work- and Employment-Related Hardships
For people living in poverty, work and employment experiences have the following characteristics:
- Their work has no or very little positive impact on their life trajectories because of the extreme difficulty of building a career. Most of the time, because of low wages and unfair employment practices, work is not perceived as a way to a better situation.
- Their work gives them no or very little access to social or professional networks that can open opportunities for advancement.
- They need to hold multiple (sometimes part-time) jobs to earn enough money to sustain themselves or a family.
- The jobs that people living in poverty can get often fail to provide benefits (for example, health care and sick days), while at the same time these jobs put their health in danger. These types of employment (often menial and manual labor) and underemployment can lead to anxiety and stress, self-doubt about what they can accomplish, and possibly eruptions of violence because the jobs don’t let them feel useful to themselves, their families, or their communities.
- It is hard to find a job and to keep a job. The skills that are learned from experience by people living in poverty are not valued or considered marketable. In the economic sphere, people in poverty are considered and treated as disposable, and this creates uncertainty and instability in their lives.
On Native American reservations as well as in other rural and urban areas, a majority of employers do not offer full-time employment with health care and other benefits, so most people need two or more jobs to survive. This creates a self-defeating cycle: people arrive at their second or third job already exhausted, leading them to make mistakes that can hurt them or other people or cost them their job. They have no time to rest, to spend with family, or to pursue their own interests or personal development.
People living in poverty also do the most dangerous jobs — working on pipelines, gas lines, coal mines, and assembly lines — and accept low-paying jobs that nobody else wants to do. They risk their health working with chemicals and impose undue wear and tear on their bodies, making them seem much older than they really are, from a lifetime of doing manual labor or standing all day at work. When job applicants write their address on an application form, prospective employers may stereotype them as lazy, unreliable, or untrustworthy, and refuse to hire them because of where they live.
“You can only get the jobs that lie at the bottom of society.”
The types of employment available to them do not pay a living wage. The menial, dead-end jobs they can find do not allow them to develop professional skills and networking connections. This vicious cycle not only limits their own personal growth, but also has generational effects: they have no opportunity to build the same social capital or networks available to other people, who pass them on to their children.
The stress and hardship of always being underemployed or unemployed — constant fear of not making enough money to provide for a family, or anxiety about being laid off — can end up tearing a family apart. The pressure of receiving low wages and having to work long hours can lead some people to use drugs and alcohol, or even resort to domestic violence. These individual hardships create challenges that can affect an entire community.
People in poverty want to take “the right path” of traditional employment, but when “the system” locks you out, some people resort to “the hustle” — taking odd jobs that pay “under the table,” or “off the books,” or participating in the “underground economy” (undeclared income from babysitting, cooking, etc.) — out of necessity or frustration. Others resort to what seem like more lucrative, but far more dangerous, options including drug dealing and sex work. But this also is a “Catch-22” situation. Participants in these illegal activities can end up with a criminal record that will prevent them from obtaining even the low paying, dead-end, and sometimes dangerous jobs they are trying to compensate for in the first place; and this continues a vicious circle. They have the feeling that there is no way out.
Work- and employment-related hardships can affect everyone in poverty, but some groups feel these hardships more than others based on who they are.
For many women in poverty, and especially women of color in poverty, a lifetime of low wages and a gender pay gap make it impossible for them to retire. Most of the employment options for single mothers consist of low-wage jobs during the hours their children are in school (so-called “mother’s hours”) They face the additional stress of juggling the role of sole provider on a low wage while also providing nurturing care — if they take a day off work to care for a sick child, they risk losing the job that enables them to support that child.
Women in poverty with low-wage jobs are more susceptible to sexual harassment at work. They know they do not have the skills that would allow them to leave their job and find another one; and the perpetrators know this too.
People with immigration status problems also experience work and employment hardships and can often get only “the jobs (that) lie at the bottom of society.”
Health and Well-being
This aspect describes chronic external and internal conditions that affect the physical and mental well-being of those most affected by poverty. These chronic conditions lead to a shorter life span, curtailed by individual, generational, place-based, or historical trauma that has left its mark as emotional and physical wounds carried by people in poverty and passed from one generation to the next. The hardships are exacerbated by harsh living conditions that include toxic stress, environmental hazards (air, water, and soil pollution), inequality in the health care system, violence, suicides, substance abuse and self-medicating, isolation, and lack of access to basic hygiene services.
A shorter life span pertains to people living with the multiple hardships of poverty regardless of their living conditions or their access to health care. Poor health related to poverty that starts in childhood is carried into adulthood and persists throughout life — for many, a shorter life than for those in better conditions — even if economic circumstances change for the better.
Historical trauma caused by government intervention and subsequent lack of governmental accountability has an enormous impact on the current mental health of people in poverty. Native Americans have extremely high suicide rates, particularly among the young; high rates of diabetes and heart problems; and high blood pressure, all stemming from the trauma caused by the “boarding school system” where children were taken from their families, placed in boarding schools, and stripped of their culture and language in order to be made more “American.”
Toxic stress — anxiety and stress that result in chemical changes in the brain — caused by historical trauma and poverty-related trauma can trigger mental health issues across generations. Self-medicating with drugs or alcohol has been used to mask mental health problems caused not only by historical trauma, but also by the stress resulting from the multiple hardships of poverty. Additionally, the over-surveillance and intrusion of government in the lives of people in poverty and the lack of trust of government by communities of color results in an under-reporting of mental health distress and undermines any attempted interventions. Even when mental health or substance abuse treatment is sought, it is often not available; and when people in poverty accept treatment, it increases the likelihood that children will be separated from their parents.
People living in both rural and urban areas generally have no control over damaging environmental conditions: lead in the water and soil, and carcinogens in the air, water, and soil. In urban areas, participants have noted used hypodermic needles being disposed of in parks and playgrounds. In rural areas, participants have noted black and brown lung disease due to coal mining and coal dust in the air (Appalachia), and uranium in the ground water and soil (New Mexico).
In rural areas, people often have to travel two hours or longer to have access to medical care or to visit a doctor. In some rural areas, thousands of people travel up to one hundred miles and wait in lines for up to three days to receive free basic medical care (an eye exam, a physical examination, or dental care) from a volunteer medical organization that serves people who do not have or cannot afford insurance coverage.
There may be more health care facilities in some urban areas, but many people’s access is limited due to high costs or lack of insurance coverage. In both rural and urban areas, people in these hardship circumstances try to ignore illnesses, hoping they will subside; they resort to home remedies and turn to emergency rooms as a last resort. Often a small ailment would be manageable with prompt medical care, but failing that, it grows into a more serious problem. In both rural and urban areas, people have reported waiting several hours in an emergency room and then being told to see their primary care physician for follow-up care, even though many of them do not have access to a primary care provider. This is another “Catch-22” scenario for people living with the multiple hardships of poverty.
“Third World country conditions within the U.S., a wealthy country”
Many people in poverty cannot practice preventive care because they have no access to nutritious food. At the same time, both malnutrition and obesity are prevalent in disadvantaged areas. Living in “food deserts” and not being able to afford nutritious food, people enduring the multiple hardships of poverty in both rural and urban areas cannot maintain diets that would aid in maintaining health. When available, food pantries can help subsidize a diet, but without those, many people have no access to fresh fruits or vegetables. The food that people in poverty do have access to — outdated, boxed, or canned items; fast food, and low-priced items that are high in sugar, salt, fat, and starch content — is what causes health problems to begin with, including diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
Dental care is often neglected because even if a person does have some form of health care insurance, dental coverage is rarely included or the services are very limited. In both rural and urban areas, it can be harder to find a dentist than a primary care physician. Lack of adequate dental care affects overall health and causes chronic pain that makes eating difficult, results in multiple tooth extractions, and erodes self-confidence by intensifying the stigma, shame, and self-isolation experienced by people in poverty who have difficulty talking or are humiliated when they smile.
“Just enough to keep you alive — sometimes.”
Lack of eye care leaves many adults in poverty with limited employment options due to uncorrected vision. Also, sight problems can cause headaches and dizziness and interfere with everyday tasks. Children with poor vision have difficulties in school if they cannot get appropriate care.
Even when access to health care is available, service providers may be unfamiliar with disorders common among people who have experienced the multiple traumas of poverty and may offer culturally inappropriate options to populations with high rates of poverty, such as people of color, Native Americans, and LGBTQ people. These realities of limited or no access to health care have been described as and “Just enough to keep you alive — sometimes.”
In relation to poverty, resources are the basic necessities and services needed to live — not merely survive — in a dignified way as an individual, as a family, and as a community. People living in poverty are often marginalized and are denied access to even the bare minimum of resources: employment, quality food, housing, land, health care and health services, safety, clean water, quality education, regular income and financial security, clothing, sanitation, transportation, social services, technology, and time.
“The poorest get the worst.”
People in poverty are aware that there is an unequal distribution of resources and cite selfishness and greed as the reason for being denied access to the most basic resources.
“We are controlled by the greed of a few.”
Housing is the most basic of resources. In urban areas, increasing rents and lack of affordable housing have pushed some people into homelessness. At the same time, subsidies that would help with the cost of rent are being decreased or eliminated. High rents and lack of affordable housing give slumlords free reign to refuse to make necessary repairs, knowing that residents do not have any other housing options. Lack of affordable housing has swelled the waiting lists for government-subsidized housing for low-income people, creating waiting times that can be ten or more years in some areas. People in public housing have the same complaints as people in poverty who live elsewhere: repairs not being addressed, lack of safety, and risk of losing their housing. People who are homeless face the red tape of qualifying as being homeless, which limits the resources available to them. In larger cities and some rural areas, more and more people are living in homeless encampments.
Education is a resource that can lift people out of poverty. Underfunded school systems can be found in both rural and urban areas. In rural areas, schools are being consolidated because of a drop in population, limiting the amount of funding received for each student, which in turn limits or eliminates arts courses, literacy programs, and “the classes that can help get the jobs that are in this area.” This underfunding also means fewer teachers, increased class sizes, less one-on-one interaction between children and educators, and less funding for special-need students. Decreased funding creates an environment of teaching to a government standard only to pass tests, with “too much memorization and not enough learning.” In both rural and urban areas, students whose families live in poverty use outdated textbooks and have limited or no access to computers or the internet, unlike their middle-income or more affluent peers.
In rural areas, natural resources are stripped from the land in ways that benefit business while creating hazardous environmental and health conditions for the people in the area, especially people living in poverty who are the least likely to be able to relocate. Harmful residue from farms, factories, and mines prevents neighbors from planting gardens for food or pleasure. Some rural areas lack the infrastructure for water altogether, while clean water (free of chemicals and lead) and sanitation may be lacking in both rural and urban areas.
Public transportation is nonexistent in some rural areas. New, more reliable transportation in some urban areas is the first sign of gentrification, which ultimately forces long-time low-income residents out of their neighborhoods.
In rural areas, it is hard to find a doctor — a two-hour ride to an emergency room or clinic is common — or to persuade doctors to stay in the area. Health care costs prevent people living in poverty in both rural and urban areas from seeking out care until they face a life-threatening emergency. The cost of dental care and lack of dentists are a big concern for people in poverty. Even those with medical insurance coverage cannot find adequate health, dental, or eye care in their area; or they are covered for only a narrow range of procedures, which often excludes the procedures they need.
For people who live in poverty, the resource of time is a luxury. Their time is not considered to have the same value as that of their middle-income counterparts. Because their time is thought to be expendable, they are made to return repeatedly with documents when seeking out much-needed subsidies. They endure zero-hour work weeks (contracts that tie wages to hours worked but do not guarantee a minimum number of hours in a given week) and work schedules that can be increased or decreased without notice and without any consideration of how that affects their lives. There is no time to rest or reflect, no time for family or personal growth or hobbies, and no time to pay attention to health or to continue with education.
Stigma and Shame
Stigma and shame are social markers imposed on a specific group of people, consciously or unconsciously, purposefully or not, by collective mechanisms that assign low social value (stigma — externally imposed) to these people or groups of people, which can lead to painful feelings of low self-esteem (shame — internally imposed).
Stigma arises from external judgmental behavior and attitudes: We are not like them or Those people. This behavior could be individual, collective, or institutional. Being othered leads to social isolation and internalized self-blame or self-oppression.
“Who cares about me? Anyway, I am worthless.”
People living with the multiple hardships of poverty are made to feel ashamed of their living conditions, yet they generally have very little or no control over these conditions.
The stigma and shame phenomenon is a social construct that is internalized by institutions, too. For example, schools can determine the social value given to someone’s identity: Which school do you go to? Are you an at-risk student or a difficult child? Failing schools in disadvantaged areas leave their former students suffering from low social value, low wages, and bleak prospects.
“Here in the U.S. who you are is defined by what you have. When you have not much, you are not much.”
Stigma arising from the multiple hardships of poverty intersects with other types of discrimination that reinforce one another (for example, race and ethnicity, gender, national origin, sexual identity, immigration status, and religion). But for some people, socio-economic standing seems to be the most consequential circumstance and the most difficult to overcome in a group.
“At an event I attended, the wealthy gay shunned the poor gay even though we were all there to support the same cause.”
This type of othering prompts the respectability politics that sustains the phenomenon of social differentiation: They are not like us.
Isolation caused by the multiple aspects of poverty can take many forms. Some people living in poverty do not have a social network of family or friends they can call on when they need support. Some people may be ostracized by others in their community who perceive them to be lower in socioeconomic class. Some people might selfisolate because they fear being found out as being poor if they cannot contribute financially to community events or because they fear casting shame on their entire family. Respectability politics creates divisions between people living poverty. Geographic segregation isolates people in poverty from society at large, limiting the diversity of the social and economic groups they can interact with.
Such isolation can be a double punishment:
“The more you need people to count on, the less they are here.”
Some people in poverty have alienated their family and friends by asking too often for help. They are considered to have character flaws or to be unwilling to provide for themselves, and their friends begin to avoid them.
“If you are poor, it is on you.”
Social isolation also comes from the instability created by the multiple hardships of poverty.
“People in poverty also bounce around, going from family relative to family relative. They are evicted, or in shelter, or living in a car. That’s not a stable enough [living environment] to build a support network.”
This creates a vicious cycle of people in need not having anyone to turn to and becoming more deeply in need and further isolated.
Feeling abandoned in a time of need adds to the emotional component of social isolation, the feeling that no one cares. People in poverty feel they are unable to connect with others or to be present in relationships as they would like to be.
“People isolated us because of our poverty, and once you are isolated, you started to self-isolate.”
“You start to get depressed and then you don’t want to be involved with people, so you get even more depressed and more isolated.”
“Why do we isolate ourselves? I don’t know, but it is maybe something that keeps poverty rolling. On the other hand, for some of us, isolation is self-preservation, in order not to lose our sanity, our identity. It is to survive and to not completely lose ourselves. It is part of our coping mechanisms too.”
For some, this cycle can lead to self-harm, while others might selfmedicate with drugs and alcohol to numb the pain.
In some isolated rural areas, families in poverty depend upon one another just to survive. These strong family bonds sometimes serve to further isolate the family members from those outside the family circle. They do not want other people to know their level of hardship because they fear that the entire family might be shunned by the larger community. Instead, they suffer in silence. They fear being shunned because of prejudice in the community. It may be against a smaller unit of their family or an individual family member. People may say “They aren’t like us.” Even extended family members may shun the family to protect their own social status: “People don’t want to bother with ‘people like us;’ they think they are not like us.” This also happens in urban areas, but it has a greater effect in rural areas where geographic isolation demands that people rely on one another more.
Social isolation is also rooted in the low self-esteem associated with the multiple hardships of poverty: people are ashamed, not able to participate, or fear being found out as poor. This leads to feelings of insignificance and worthlessness. And when they don’t have family or friends around, they feel isolated.
“We are always, in a way, outsiders — like we don’t belong.”
A U.S. research team activist said,
“In poverty, we have to learn some emotional disconnection as a way to protect ourselves from the stress of the situation. As kids, we learned ‘Don’t feel too much.’ If we don’t allow ourselves to be connected with our feelings, how can we express them? Isolation takes away our sense of agency.”
This disconnection has long-term consequences; social isolation can result in short- and long-term physical and mental health challenges.
Social isolation may also occur when people in poverty do not have the means to contribute to social life, the means to belong.
“There is a duality between our identity from within and our identity from outside. And there is a disconnect between them. Therefore, the material deprivation comes to confirm the identity from the outside perspective, leading [you] to silence your inner identity”
This troubling dynamic increases anxiety because people are torn between satisfying their basic needs and satisfying the imposed expectations of socializing to ensure belonging and eliminate social isolation:
“Here in the U.S., who you are is defined by what you have. When you have not much, you are not much. And then, you are not treated like you belong.”
The limitations of language make it nearly impossible for some people experiencing poverty to describe their lives:
“It is like you are locked into what you live because you can’t share it with others. There is a lot of contempt in my head and I don’t have the means in English to make sense of it. And because of the fact that we don’t have the words, others can put their words, and impose what they think is our identity on us.”
This labeling is the start of othering and intensifies social isolation.
Unrecognized Voice and Exclusion from Participation
A lack of power and the weight of poverty in its many dimensions prevent people in poverty from exercising their voice. They have learned that they don’t matter as human beings, so they do not speak of their hardships or struggles:
“No one cares. We don’t really matter. We are disposable.”
Instead, they internalize the injustice and dehumanization they face, and this affects their self-esteem and self-worth — “We learn to suffer in silence” — and can lead to anxiety, serious health conditions, and internal rage. Without a voice, people living in poverty are unable to collectively define themselves and are consequently unable to bear the weight of the labels society places on them.
Those people in poverty who are able to speak out struggle with not being listened to and not being heard. Most of the time, as a U.S. research team activist said:
“We don’t want to speak to complain, but to exist.”
The unrecognized voice of people in poverty prevents the public from knowing “the real deal of what it is to live in poverty.” Poverty is commonly defined by academics, economists, and policymakers without the input of the people who actually live in poverty. Because their voice is unrecognized, unacknowledged, or ignored, they are prevented from speaking on their own behalf and from participating in society economically, politically, and culturally. They rarely have access to any decision-making process that would lead to meaningful solutions.
People in poverty have their political voice silenced by disenfranchisement. Because their voice is unacknowledged and they lack power, they are not recognized as active contributors to society. Voting laws and regulations (for example, the requirement to produce a personal identification card or a birth certificate in order to vote, and the need to travel miles to a polling station) prevent some people in poverty from voting. People in poverty have been labeled as apathetic or too lazy to vote. The reality is that many of them know that their elected representatives do not care about them or, worse, only use them as an example when talking about benefit fraud or crime. These dynamics prevent their voice from being heard and deny their participation in political life.
This aspect of poverty describes the motivation of some people facing adversity to strive to grow personally in order to overcome poverty and to experience some peace of mind:
“The struggle is to be determined not to give up on what you’re striving towards.”
This aspect also recognizes the rage that some people feel when they confront the realities of poverty and the negative labels they are forced to endure. This struggle is a way of coping, of self-preservation.
There is a tension between relief at having accomplished something (surviving for another week, another month, and taking pride in that), frustration at not having the strength to confront the systems of poverty any longer, and fear of exposure (suffering in silence):
“We try to make sense of our struggle as a learning process and we can be proud of that, despite everything that we have been denied.”
Under the multiple attacks of subjugation, people in poverty are looking for inner balance in their lives.
Some people find inner balance on their own: “…people will try to bring you down, but you still have something inside, that spark.” Others rely on their faith to get inner balance: “Spirituality/God is my source, my lifeline, my hope.”
About the struggle, activist members of the national research team wrote:
Our coping mechanisms are how we go through what life throws at us; how we get through the rage caused by the poverty and inequity we endure. Complacency is what is expected from people living in poverty — that we are lazy, don’t want to work hard, and are content with the circumstances of our life. It has been said of us, ‘Some people think money only comes from a mailbox,’ meaning we are content to rely on government subsidies as opposed to working. These are the external factors (labeling, social humiliation, stigma, judgment) that are imposed on us, causing shame for some and frustration and anger for others.
We have hope and drive, but change in ourselves and in our lives takes time. The most you can hope for is middle class pride — being able to provide for yourself and your family. And we sacrifice for that: consistently going without and putting others’ needs before our own. We do all that for our children. We learn from our struggles, but there is also a struggle for internal balance and peace. We strive to be the best we can, for ourselves and our families. But we also question why it is the poor who are always expected to adapt and change, but not the system, structures, and regulations that support the continuation of poverty.
We have been told — indeed, we have been raised — to be grateful for what we have. We go through situations, ‘I don’t know what my next meal is going to be or where it’s going to come from …not sure how I’m going pay my rent this week’ and we are grateful for having gone through that, for having survived. We have learned to be grateful to be alive, but there is a rage in that because of our stories and histories. When we are told to be grateful for the poor quality of resources and the limited resources we are allowed to access, we become resentful because we are not allowed to go further. We are forced to accept what cannot change and to find peace in it. ‘People who say they are ‘grateful for life’ is something people say who don’t have anything else.’
We do not claim to be victims, but for some there is an undercurrent of rage at the injustices we face; a back-and-forth between positive and negative.
Society likes to describe as resilient those people in poverty who have gone through repeated struggles and managed to survive, as opposed to succumbing. Resiliency is a label that is thrown at us to describe that. We don’t want to use the word resilience. That is not our vocabulary.
We embrace the identities we give ourselves: mother, father, provider, friend, activist, educator, and others. We develop strength from defining ourselves and from resisting our life conditions and the labels imposed on us.
Poor Attitudes About Poverty and the Poor
In early 2001, a national poll conducted by National Public Radio (NPR), the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University’s Kennedy School asked nearly 2,000 Americans 18 or older, “Which is the bigger cause of poverty today: that people are not doing enough to help themselves out of poverty, or that circumstances beyond their control cause them to be poor?” Respondents were roughly equally divided between “people not doing enough” (48 percent) and “circumstances” (45 percent), as shown in Table 1. About 50 percent of the more affluent people polled believed that the poor were not doing enough to help themselves, but so did about 39 percent of the poor. The poor were more likely to blame “circumstances” than themselves for their financial hardship.
The poll also showed that about two-thirds of Americans believe that the poor have the same moral values as other Americans. But about one-fifth thought the poor had lower moral values. The poor themselves share this belief: About one-fourth believe the poor have lower moral values than other Americans. Even with work-based welfare reform, a sizeable share of the American public holds unfavorable views about poor people.
Hard Work and Motivation
One persistent stereotype is that the poor, especially the welfare poor, are unmotivated: They lack aspirations to “get ahead,” or don’t work hard enough to succeed. The NPR/Kaiser/Kennedy School poll, in fact, showed that 52 percent of the American public believed that lack of motivation was a major cause of poverty; another 35 percent believed it was a minor cause of poverty. Differences in responses by poverty status were surprisingly small. Most Americans, including the poor, said they strongly believe that America is a land of opportunity. Their responses suggest they believe that motivation and hard work can pull people out of poverty, regardless of their background.
Other studies of the poor typically reveal that values among the poor are remarkably similar to those of the rest of society. A study in Milwaukee showed that most teens, including teenage mothers, regarded education as being valuable for its own sake, as a source of personal pride and as an example for their children, as well as a route to upward economic mobility. But people in poverty often fail to translate educational values into concrete goals, in part because they do not know about or have access to local educational resources, or because those resources are limited or difficult to reach.
Surveys also indicate that the poor prefer work to receiving help from the government or from family members. The NPR/Kaiser/Kennedy School poll, in fact, showed that 52 percent of poor people believed that “most welfare recipients today really want to work.” Work provides purpose in life, a place to go, a sense of control, and income. For many low-income people, however, jobs are often unavailable; if available, they often pay poorly or do not provide health insurance. To make ends meet, many people in poverty rely on public or familial assistance. According to researchers Kathryn Edin and Laura Lein, the poor often require “something special” in order to find and keep a job, such as low rent, free child care from a relative, help with bills, a reliable car, good public transportation, or a generous benefactor.
Poor women tend to dislike or disapprove of welfare; they “hate it,” “don’t want it,” “hope [to] never have to be on it,” and “want to get off it.” Some studies have shown that the poor believed they are entitled to cash assistance if they experience economic need, but that very few approved of welfare receipt per se. Welfare mothers often feel degraded, and resent the public view that they are lazy or avoid work, even as they maintain a home and raise their children. Most women value their ability to combine work, welfare, and family support, and to use welfare while improving their job prospects. But many poor people distrust the government policies and programs that were ostensibly designed to help them.
How Poor, Really, Are America’s Poor?
The Census Bureau recently announced it wants advice on ways to develop more accurate measurements of poverty—a welcome and much-needed change.
Year after year, the Census Bureau reports that more than 30 million Americans live in poverty. Yet it is widely acknowledged that the way government measures poverty is deeply flawed.
The first question is: What does it mean to be poor in the U.S.?
According to the government’s own data, the average American family or single person, identified as poor by the Census Bureau, lives in an air-conditioned, centrally heated house or apartment that is in good repair and not overcrowded. They have a car or truck. (Indeed, 43% of poor families own two or more cars.)
The home has at least one widescreen TV connected to cable, satellite, or a streaming service, a computer or tablet with internet connection, and a smartphone. (Some 82% of poor families have one or more smartphones.)
By their own report, the average poor family had enough food to eat throughout the prior year. No family member went hungry for even a single day due to a lack of money for food.
They have health insurance (either public or private) and were able to get all “necessary medical care and prescription medication” when needed.
Reality of Poverty vs. Perceptions
None of this matches the public perception of poverty created by the media. Images of dilapidated trailer homes or drug-infested neighborhoods, full of boarded up buildings, are a staple of media poverty reports.
These conditions are quite real, and we should be concerned about people who do live in them. But they are, fortunately, not the norm for poor Americans. Fewer than 1 in 10 poor people lives in a mobile home, and 9 out of 10 poor families report no vacant or abandoned buildings in their neighborhoods.
Still, subgroups among the poor do experience substantial financial stress and deprivation. About 7% of poor households report missing a rent or mortgage payment in the prior three months; 2% have had utilities cut off due to nonpayment. And 11% report having delayed or failed to get dental or medical care sometime during the year for lack of money.
But the majority of those defined as poor by the government do not experience material hardship. Of course, their lives are not a stroll down Easy Street; their finances are often uncertain, and they strain to make ends meet. But the average living conditions among the government-defined poor are well removed from “poverty” as the term is ordinarily understood.
By using inaccurate measures that pool together those who actually experience deprivation with those who do not, we deflect attention from those who truly need assistance.
Why the disconnect between how the poor actually live and the routine Census Bureau claims of widespread poverty in the U.S.?
Take for example its consistent report that 1 in 6 children are poor. Government spends over $220 billion on cash, food, and housing aid for low-income families with children. This is two and a half times the amount needed to eliminate all child poverty in the nation. How can so many children remain poor?
The answer lies in the methods the Census Bureau deploys to measure poverty. It defines a family as poor if its “money income” lies below the poverty income thresholds ($25,926 for a family of four in 2019). But “money income” excludes nearly all the benefits provided by means-tested welfare programs, including food stamps, the Women, Infants, and Children food program, Medicaid, housing aid, the earned income tax credit, and the refundable child credit.
Of the $220 billion in means-tested spending on cash, food, and housing for families with children, the Census Bureau counts only 5% as “money income” for purposes of measuring poverty. Under this measurement, government could double welfare spending on poor children and measured poverty would barely budge.
Consider the situation of a single mother with two children working full time at federal minimum wage. After taxes, this mom has only $13,853 in annual earnings. But in nearly all cases she also would receive benefits from food stamps, the earned income tax credit, the refundable child credit, and child nutrition programs worth around $12,600.
Her combined income from earnings and benefits would be around $26,500, about 30% above the poverty threshold for a family of three.
But there is more. In the average state, her family also would receive Medicaid coverage worth another $10,000. If she also gets housing aid (as do roughly 1 in 4 low-income single parents), her combined economic resources from earnings and benefits would reach $47,400.
Despite this financial assistance, the Census Bureau would count only the original $13,853 as income, then dutifully inform the public that the mother was desperately poor. Poverty statistics of this sort are misleading and harmful to rational discourse.
Better Approaches to Measure Poverty
The Trump administration wants to improve poverty measurement by adding a new measure. Two approaches are promising.
The first would be based on self-reported spending or consumption by the poor. This approach circumvents the underreporting of welfare benefits that plague the normal Census Bureau income surveys. When a poor household spends resources received from the earned income tax credit, food stamps, or WIC program, the value of those benefits shows up in the household spending tally.
The government has surveyed spending on poor households annually since the 1980s; year after year, the government reports spending around $2 for every dollar of “money income” that the Census Bureau says they have—no surprise, given their flawed measurement system. Using self-reported spending figures rather than the bureau’s “money income” formula would cut the U.S. poverty rate roughly in half.
The second approach would link Census Bureau surveys to the administrative data from welfare programs. These data record the actual benefits received by individual households during the year. This commonsense linkage would give policymakers something they’ve never had before: accurate information on the extent and depth of the current welfare state. (As with current surveys, the privacy of individual households would be maintained.)
A recent study by prominent poverty researcher Bruce Meyer of the University of Chicago linked Census Bureau data to the administrative records for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, food stamp, and subsidized housing programs in New York state. It shows that families received far more assistance than is commonly understood—to the extent that using accurate information from these three programs alone cuts the poverty rate of single mothers in half.
Additional data from the earned income tax credit; the Women, Infants, and Children food program; and other nutrition aid programs, if available, would show even greater reductions in measured poverty.
Developing Better Policies on Poverty
Accurate information is essential to crafting effective anti-poverty programs. Faulty surveys that ignore nearly all of the current welfare state exaggerate the extent and severity of financial deprivation in the nation.
This is not helpful: It leads to a misdiagnosis of poverty, the misallocation of resources, and policies often irrelevant to the real problems facing society and the poor.
The accurate measurement of poverty should not serve as a pretext for simply slashing welfare spending. Instead, it should provide a better assessment of actual need.
Accurately measuring poverty also could facilitate the development of longer-term policies that address the real underlying problems facing low-income communities: the collapse of marriage, deindustrialization in smaller cities, and slow wage growth for lesser skilled workers.
This approach would truly benefit society and the poor.
reliefweb.int, “11 Top Causes of Global Poverty.”; homelesshub.ca, “Why Does Poverty Exist?”; federalsafetynet.com, “U.S. Poverty Statistics.”; atdfourthworld-usa.org, “How is Poverty Measured in the U.S.?” ; theconversation.com, “Poverty in 2021 looks different than in 1964 – but the US hasn’t changed how it measures who’s poor since LBJ began his war.” By Mark Robert Rank; prb.org, “Poor Attitudes About Poverty and the Poor.” By PRB editors; heritage.org, “How Poor, Really, Are America’s Poor?” By Robert Rector and Jamie Bryan Hall;
Poverty in 2021 looks different than in 1964 – but the US hasn’t changed how it measures who’s poor since LBJ began his war
In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson famously declared war on poverty.
“The richest nation on Earth can afford to win it,” he told Congress in his first State of the Union address. “We cannot afford to lose it.”
Yet as the administration was to learn on both the domestic and foreign battlefields, a country marching off to war must have a credible estimate of the enemy’s size and strength. Surprisingly, up until this point, the U.S. had no official measure of poverty and therefore no statistics on its scope, shape or changing nature. The U.S. needed to come up with a way of measuring how many people in America were poor.
As I discuss in my recently published book “Confronting Poverty,” the approach that the government came up with in the 1960s is still – despite its many shortcomings – the government’s official measure of poverty and used to determine eligibility for hundreds of billions of dollars in federal aid.
Counting the poor
Broadly speaking, poverty means not having the money to purchase the basic necessities to maintain a minimally adequate life, such as food, shelter and clothing.
The government came up with its official method for counting poor people in the mid-1960s.
First, it asks, what does it cost to purchase a minimally adequate diet during the year for a particularly sized family? That number is then multiplied by three, and you have arrived at the poverty line. That’s it.
If a family’s income falls above the line it is not considered in poverty, while those below the line are counted as poor.
What about all the other basic necessities, such as housing, clothing and health care? That’s where the multiplier of three comes in. When the poverty thresholds were devised, research indicated that the typical family spent approximately one-third of its income on food and the remaining two-thirds on all other expenses.
Therefore, the logic was that if a minimally adequate diet could be purchased for a particular dollar amount, multiplying that figure by three would give the amount of income needed to purchase the basic necessities for a minimally adequate life.
Back in 1963, that translated into a poverty line of US$3,128 for a family of four. In 2019, the same family’s poverty line stood at $26,172. For an interesting contrast, that’s less than half what the average American polled in 2013 said was the “smallest amount of money” a family of four needed to get by, or $58,000.
The federal government adjusts the poverty line annually to reflect increases in the cost of living. The cutoff itself varies by the number of people in the household, while a household’s annual income is based upon the earnings of everyone currently residing within it.
Using this measure, 10.5% of the U.S. population was in poverty in 2019, the most recent data available.
Keep in mind, though, these thresholds represent impoverishment at its most opulent level. Among those living below the poverty line, 45% live in “deep” poverty, which means they live on less than half of the official poverty line.
The government uses the official poverty line as the base to determine who’s eligible for a range of social programs, from Medicaid to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. For example, to qualify for SNAP, a household must be below 130% of the poverty line for its size.
Other measures of poverty
Most analysts, however, consider the official poverty line to be an extremely conservative measure of economic hardship.
A major reason for this is that families today have to spend much more on things other than food than they did in the 1960s. For example, housing costs have surged over 800% since then.
For that reason, some critics say the multiplier of three should be raised to four or even higher. Taking that step would result in a much larger percentage of the population being seen as in poverty, making them eligible for anti-poverty benefits.
In response, in 2011 the census bureau developed an alternative measure of poverty, called the Supplemental Poverty Measure. This method takes into account a number of factors that the official poverty measure does not, such as differences in cost of living across the country. The result pushes the poverty rate up just a tad, to 11.7% for 2019. This measure is mostly used today by academics and researchers.
Another method, common in many high-income countries, ignores the cost of living calculations entirely.
The European Union, for example, defines poverty as the percentage of the population that earns below one half of whatever the median income is. For example, in the U.S., the median income in 2019 was $68,703, which means anyone earning less than $34,351 would be deemed poor. By that measure, the U.S. would have a poverty rate of 17.8%.
In fact, back in 1959, the poverty line for a family of four was about half of median income in the U.S. Today, it’s about a quarter, which means the federal government’s definition of who is poor hasn’t kept up with overall rising standards of living.
One other approach is based on the idea that poverty is more than just a lack of income and should reflect economic insecurity more broadly, such as not having unemployment or health insurance. The census recently calculated what poverty might look from this perspective and concluded 38% of Americans experienced one or more aspects of deprivation in 2019.
The only way to win the war
Why does it matter how a society measures poverty?
It matters because in order to address a problem, you must have a clear understanding of its scope. By using an extremely conservative measurement such as the federal poverty line, the U.S. minimizes the extent and depth of poverty in the country.
An inaccurate poverty line inevitably also limits the number of impoverished people who qualify for much-needed federal and state assistance. During the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of people would have fallen into poverty were it not for less conditional coronavirus aid from the federal government, such as the three rounds of economic impact checks and supplemental federal employment insurance.
Many Americans in the past have been rudely surprised at just how inadequate America’s safety net is, at least in part because it’s based on outdated federal poverty thresholds. Broadening the definition of poverty would ensure it’s more likely to be there to support people in a crisis.
Ultimately, poverty will touch the majority of Americans at some point in their lives. My own research shows that roughly 6 in 10 Americans will spend at least one of their adult years below the official poverty line.
But if the U.S. ever hopes to finally win the war LBJ began in 1964, the poor need to be seen in order for the government to lift them out of poverty.
What Is Wrong With Our Country?