POVERTY IN THE UNITED STATES Poverty in the United States today has many faces. There’s the pleading face of a middle-aged man on a city street holding up a sign that says “Hungry, Need Help. ” There’s the anxious face of a young child in a schoolroom somewhere, whose only real meal today will be a free school lunch. There’s the sad face of a single mother who doesn’t have enough money to buy clothes for her children. And there’s the frustrated face of a young man working at a minimum-wage job who can’t afford to pay his rent.
The federal government measures poverty by the numbers. In 2007, the federal “poverty line” was set at $16,530 for a family of three and $21,203 for a family of four (USCB). If a family makes less than those amounts of money in a year, it is officially classified as poor. According to the U. S. Census Bureau, 12. 3 percent of all Americans were living in poverty in 2006. That equates to more than 36 million people, more than the entire population of the state of California. Of course, poverty means more than just not having enough money.
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The Catholic Campaign for Human Development recently interviewed people with low incomes about how being poor feels. Some of the responses were: “Not enough food, unable to buy medicine. ” “It means that each and every day is a struggle. It means you have no voice. It means you’re treated differently and unfairly. ” “I worry about money a lot, running out of food, our broken car, lack of health insurance for my son. ” “Overdrawing bank accounts, getting kicked out of homes for not being able to pay rent. ” “No food. No shelter. No hope” (USCCB).
These responses show us that, just as there are many different faces to poverty, there are also many different definitions as to what living in poverty feels like. Another part of what makes defining the problem so incredible difficult. As the U. S. Census Bureau shows, poverty in the United States is also not evenly distributed. It is worse for children and teens than for adults. In 2005, 17. 4 percent of U. S. children and teens lived in poverty, compared with 10. 8 percent of those between ages 18 and 64. Poverty is also worse mong African Americans and Hispanic Americans. In 2005, 24. 3 percent of African Americans lived in poverty, as did 20. 6 percent of Hispanic Americans. The poverty rate was 10. 3 percent for Asian Americans and 8. 2 percent for non-Hispanic whites. Poverty is also more prevalent in some parts of the country than in others. In 2006, 13. 8 percent of people in the South were living in poverty, compared with 11. 6 percent for both the Northeast and the Midwest and 11. 2 percent for the West (USCB) . Pockets of extreme poverty are also scattered in U. S. cities.
According to a recent study by the Brookings Institution, the city with the most concentrated poor population is Fresno, California; followed by New Orleans, even before hurricane Katrina hit; Miami, and Atlanta. But why are so many people in the United States of America stuck in poverty? The answers, like the problem, are complex. Some speak of a “culture of poverty” that keeps people from working their way out of poverty because they have come to see it as a way of life. Others speak about a growing technology gap, with higher-paying jobs going to computer-smart, educated workers and leaving others out.
Still others say that racism and prejudice are strong factors in keeping minorities poor (Myers). One factor in the poverty story that nearly everyone can agree on is the increase in the working poor. For centuries, poverty has been mainly an affliction of those who are unemployed. But over the last 30 years, the number of jobs that do not pay a living wage has increased dramatically (USCCB). The federal government already has a number of programs designed to help people in poverty: food stamps, Medicaid, housing subsidies, and others.
But despite these programs, poverty continues to rise. In his response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita, President George W. Bush promised that the nation would do “its duty to confront … poverty with bold action” by spending billions on rebuilding New Orleans and other hard-hit regions of the South (Washington Post). However, one of President Bush’s critics, former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, says it will take more than money to stop the growth of poverty in the United States; it will take a change of heart. What Edwards is saying is, in order to end poverty, e all need to stop looking the other way and face up to the fact that poverty in America is a real problem. It will also take some reform. The current poverty measure has not been updated since it was adopted in 1969. Right now, the federal government’s poverty formula says that the poverty threshold for a family of four is $21,000- whether they live in Manhattan, New York or Manhattan, Kansas. This one-size-fits-all formula tells us about 19 percent of New York City residents are poor. But the cost of living is much higher than average in New York and many other cities.
A proposed, new formula takes this geographic difference in the cost of living into account. As a result, it was found that the poverty threshold is $27,000 for a family of four in New York City, which puts 23 percent of New Yorkers below the poverty line (N. Y. Observer). Another example of needed reform is seen with food. In 1969 food made up about one-third of a poor family’s budget. Since then the economy has vastly changed. So has society, and so have government benefits. Food now makes up only one-eighth of a poor family’s budget. But the poverty formula has not adjusted to any of these changes (N.
Y. Observer). If we are serious about fighting poverty, we need to get serious about measuring it. While there’s a never-ending debate in Washington about how to confront poverty, there is still hardly any clarity as to who is actually poor. In his first State of the Union speech almost 44 years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared, “This administration today, here and now; declares an unconditional war on poverty in America. ” The speech made poverty a national concern and set in motion a number of anti-poverty programs that still operate today.
Programs like Head Start, a program to help children in poor neighborhoods gain the skills necessary to start school; Food Stamps, a program that allows low income people to buy food at a low cost; Medicare, a medical insurance program to help people over age 65 pay medical bills; and Medicaid, a program to help low-income people pay medical bills. These programs, which have cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars, had an immediate effect. Poverty rates dropped, especially among African Americans, and living conditions among America’s poor improved greatly. But Johnson’s efforts did not win the war on poverty. The U. S. overty rate has remained relatively steady since the 1970s and has recently begun to increase. In fact, some critics say the “War on Poverty” has been quietly lost. Hurricane Katrina exposed more than government’s general lack of preparedness for handling a natural disaster. It also exposed the difficulties of America’s poor underclass. Now both Democrats and Republicans agree that something must be done to alleviate the stubborn growth of poverty that afflicts far too many people. In two recent periods in U. S. history poverty came to the forefront of public consciousness: the Great Depression and President Johnson’s War on Poverty.
Both periods brought government programs and institutions that still exist today. With the U. S. currently in the midst of the largest financial crisis in years, and with a presidential election coming up, it is possible that poverty may once again be brought into the limelight. References: U. S. Census Bureau (USCB) Catholic Campaign for Human Development (USCCB) Washington Post; November 4, 2005 The New York Observer; July14, 2008 Brookings Institution (I looked it up, it is institution) David G. Myers, Social Psychology 9th Ed. , 2008