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Why Everyone Should Pay More Attention to Poverty

"The growing divide between wealth and poverty, between opportunity and misery, is both a challenge to our compassion and a source of instability. We must confront it" - George W. Bush. By Flickr user mSeattle.

You probably caught some of the hullaballoo this week over Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney being caught on tape making negative remarks about people who don't pay income tax.

Here's a quick refresher:

Many people pointed out that most of those who don't pay income tax are poor. But what got a bit lost was what it means to be poor in the United States.

So let’s take a few minutes to stop making cracks about how insensitive Romney is and examine what it means to be in poverty and why it matters for the entire country, including you, no matter who you are.

Who are the poor in the U.S.?

During the Great Depression, the face of the poor was a woman who became known far and wide as "Migrant Mother," from this famous photo:


Today, we don't have a clear picture in our minds when we think about the poor in America.

So it might surprise you to hear that 46.2 million, or 15 percent of Americans, are living in poverty.

Yes, 15% of people in the wealthiest country in the world are poor. That's 15 out of every 100 people.

Here's where they live, according to 2008 data:

US states by poverty rate

It shows household poverty levels ranging from less than 6% (lightest pink) to more than 16% (darkest red).

Minorities are affected the most by poverty. Here's a graph to show the percentages group by group:

In addition to minority groups, 16.4 million children, or 22 percent of children, were categorized as living in poverty in 2010.

What does 'poor' mean?

We hear the word "poverty" a lot, but what exactly does it mean?

The U.S. government defines poverty by comparing a person’s income with the minimum amount needed to pay for food and housing.

This minimum amount varies depending on family size.

People learning less than the minimum cost of food and housing needed for their family are considered to be living "below the poverty line."

On average, it costs around $60,000 minimum to support a household of four for a year.

But over the past year, the average household income fell to $50,000.

(Meanwhile, incomes for people at the top end of the spectrum went up, but let's not get into that right now.)

Living under poverty conditions usually translates to an everyday fear of not being able to pay for basic life necessities: food and housing. (That's why poverty is closely tied to many other problems, like hunger, unemployment, and homelessness.)

It just makes sense: if you're having trouble making ends meet, you start feeling worried about being able to cover the basics.

This fear can lead people to do things they might not otherwise do, like steal or sell their bodies.

Living under these conditions also makes it much more difficult to attain the education needed to rise out of poverty.

What causes poverty?

Many factors can push people into poverty - the causes are complex.

Here's a look at three possible factors - joblessness, politics, and family structure:

1. Joblessness is one of the main reasons why people don’t have enough to put food and a roof over their head. Currently the unemployment rate in the U.S. is over 8 percent. That’s over 12.5 million Americans without jobs, not including the discouraged who have stopped looking for work or those who are employed part time.

See our story about unemployment >>

And having a job isn’t necessarily enough: 50 percent of the jobs in the country pay less than $34,000 a year, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

2. Politics may well play a role in why why poverty has increased over the years, due to money interests in Washington.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz argues that the U.S. political system is money-driven and favors the most affluent in many different ways. For example, those who can initially afford a higher education are more likely to attain a higher paying job or a political seat. Also, through lobbying – paying organizations to fight for a corporation's or group's interests – the rich can take advantage of the political system.

3. Family structure also plays a role in poverty. Single parents often have a harder time making enough money to support a family on their own. And statistics show an increase in single-parent homes over the past few decades.

How does poverty affect me?

Why does the poverty rate matter? Well, obviously, if you're poor - or on the brink of being poor - it matters a lot. It often means not knowing if you're going to have nutritious food to eat, or enough food at all. And it might mean homelessness or other kinds of instability.

One example is a 14-year-old girl named Tierra Jackson. She had to explain to her teacher why she was late every day: she was homeless and had to take a hour and a half bus ride to and from school.

If you're poor, hungry, and maybe even homeless, it's likely that you'll have a hard time doing well and staying in school, because you may be hungry or malnourished, distracted, tired, and more.

But even if you're not poor, poverty affects you because it affects the country's overall social and economic dynamics in all kinds of ways.

A higher poverty rate can, for example, lead to a less competitive economy. Some argue that a country is likely to be more creative when all of its citizens have a fair shot at competing. Bright, innovative people can’t really play the game if all their time is spent worrying about food and housing.

Poverty can also drive up costs for everyone. Why? When people are poor, they can't afford to buy as many goods and services. And that means companies cut back. And then other things happen like prices go up and jobs get cut and stores close. It's a cycle.

How can we fight poverty?

Food stamps and tax breaks for single parents are just two federal programs that help people stay out of poverty.

Maintaining these programs - often referred to as "the safety net"- depends, of course, on politics.

Here's what President Obama and his opponent, Mitt Romney, say about how they would address poverty:

Many private programs also help raise money for poverty initiatives. One example is the Global Charity Festival, which includes artists like Neil Young and Band of Horses.

Oddly enough, even though 15% of Americans are impoverished, there's been very little coverage of poverty in the media lately.

The Kicker

Want to make a difference? Here are a few ways:

Donate to one of the top social service organizations >>

Join the K.I.D.S. Ambassador program >>

Host a penny drive >>

Get in the Snack Wrap! >>

Images used under Creative Commons licensing.

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Why Everyone Should Pay More Attention to Poverty

Jennifer Cain

Jenny Cain is a freelance writer from Orange County, California, and former banana slug, or UC Santa Cruz alum. She teaches classical and jazz piano to high school students and audits classes at UC Irvine. Inspired by Beyonce, Sheryl Sandberg, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and the Supreme Court’s 3 badass lady justices, she’d like to see the U.S. elect their first woman president. Like, yesterday.

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2 Responses

  1. ED SUSA says:

    Thank you for this article.  It’s a very clearly written piece on poverty and what it means to all of our lives.

  2. health101 says:

    Poverty as a social problem is a deeply rooted in every dimension of culture and society.