Today, “the number of people in the U.S. who are in poverty is increasing to record levels with the ranks of working-age poor approaching 1960s levels that led to the national war on poverty” (“Poverty in the United States,” 2012). When looking at the increasingly important issue of poverty in the United States, one cannot help but wonder how this will affect future generations and the stability of the nation as a whole. In order to fully understand the problem at hand, poverty must first be defined, have the causes and effects of it examined, look at it from a world-wide perspective, and then consider how it will affect the future of the United States. The goal of this document is to bring to the readers attention the potential consequences of ignoring poverty in the United States and motivate them to do something about it.
“Poverty is the deprivation of well being that occurs when people cannot satisfy their basic needs” (“Poverty,” 2012). There are two kinds of poverty: absolute poverty and relative poverty. Absolute poverty, or destitution, refers to the lack of basis needs such as food, water, clothing, shelter, health care, education, and the necessary supplies to live hygienically (“Poverty,” 2012). When poverty is measured in relative terms, it is defined contextually by the median income of where people live (Smeeding, 2006, p. 71).
Relative poverty does not imply that that the person is lacking anything, just that they are living below a certain level of income (“Poverty in the United States,” 2012). For example: a person with an annual income of $150,000 living in a neighborhood with an average annual income of $500,000 is relatively poor even though they by no means lack the ability to provide the basic essential needs outlined by absolute poverty. Both types of poverty vary from location to location, but absolute poverty tends to be more of a universal definition while relative poverty is strictly dependent upon the
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location in which a person lives. “Since the 1960s, the United States government has defined poverty in absolute terms. When the Johnson administration declared ‘war on poverty’ in 1964, it chose an absolute measure. The ‘absolute poverty line’ is the threshold below which families or individuals are considered to be lacking the resources to meet the basic needs for healthy living; having insufficient income to provide the food, shelter and clothing needed to preserve health” (“Poverty in the United States,” 2012).
“A 2001 poll in the United States asked: ‘In your opinion, 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?’ Responses were nearly evenly split between ‘people not doing enough’ (48 percent) and ‘circumstances’ (45 percent)” (Iceland, 2006, p. 70). There are many speculations as to what the causes of poverty in the United States are and studies show that the main causes are both social and economic, both of which will be discussed here. Problems leading to poverty in the United States include family status, the level of education of the head of household, age of the head of household, and race.
“In 1991, 8.3% of children in two-parent families were likely to live in poverty; 19.6% of children living with father in single parent family; and 47.1% in single parent family headed by mother” (“Poverty in the United States,” 2012). That means that an average of 33.35% of children coming from a single parent family are likely to live in poverty compared to a mere 8.3% of children living in the traditional, two-parent, family. Another great factor leading to poverty is the level of education of the head of household. “Studies have shown that people who invest in their education or skills can expect higher incomes” (Iceland, 2006, p. 70-71). Obviously, income has
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a direct correlation with poverty as it is in the essence of its definition. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, “the median earnings of household headed by individuals with less than a 9th grade education was $20,805 while households headed by high school graduates earned $40,456, households headed by holders of a bachelor’s degree earned $77,605, and families headed by individuals with professional degrees earned $100,00” (“Poverty in the United States,” 2012). In 2009, households headed by individuals age 15-24 averaged an income of $30,750 annually, while households headed by individuals age 25-34 averaged $50,188, and households with a head age 35-44 averaged $61,083 (“Poverty in the United States,” 2012). Along with this study, there were no indicators as to what the primary cause of this was; however, it’s possible that work experience and additional education may be factors. While this is more of a combination of a social and economic factor to poverty, it is more of a social one because it deals directly with the head of household.
The factor related to poverty to look at is race. In 2003, the poverty rate amongst African Americans in the United States was 24.4%, almost double the national poverty rate of 12.5% (Iceland, 2006, p. 81). This could be due to the oppressions of society through racial discrimination or profiling, or simply the effects of the oppression that once was- slavery and the racist discrimination of the early 20th century. “Poverty increases the risk of homelessness” (“Poverty,” 2012), and children who grow up in low income families have less of a chance to get a good education and attempt to better themselves and their income (“Poverty,” 2012). With this in mind, it makes sense that the African American community makes up a large majority of the poor in the United States. Their beginnings in this nation were the lowest, poorest conditions of anyone in that day. Many believe that they simply have not been able to
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climb out of the hole they were placed in to when they were enslaved back in the 1700’s. “Another factor that contributes to higher poverty rates among African Americans is human-capital skills differentials. This refers to differences in average levels of education, quality of educational opportunities, and subsequent work experience. The gap in average levels of education has declined over the past few decades. Nevertheless, the quality of schooling received by children varies widely, and African Americans are more likely to attend inferior schools with fewer resources” (Iceland, 2006, P. 84).
Attendance to schools with fewer resources is a direct result of their economic situation, which causes the poor to stay poor in this case. Another example of race being a factor of poverty in the United States can be seen when observing the hispanic culture. In 2003, the Latino poverty rate was at 22.5%, just below that of the African American community (Iceland, 2006, p. 85). This is in large part due to immigration, as “immigrant families are at greater risk of poverty than nonimmigrant families” (Iceland, 2006, p. 85). Also, “in places with many immigrants, the competition for low-wage jobs also appears to drive down wages for these immigrants” (Iceland, 2006, p. 86). For as much as Americans focus on equal opportunity and not discriminating based upon race, it would appear that poverty does discriminate based upon race and does not provide all races with equal opportunities in the United States.
Obviously there are exceptions, and not everyone who grows up in poverty stays poor. Nonetheless, there is still a trend of minority races having higher poverty rates in the United States. “21% of all children in the United States live in poverty; about 46% of black children and 40% of Latino children live in poverty” (“Poverty in the United States,” 2012). Now that the factors leading to poverty and effects of them have been examined, it is time Running head: POVERTY IN THE UNITED STATES 6
to look at poverty from a world-wide perspective. Mahatma Gandhi said, “Poverty is the worst form of violence.” All across the world, this violence is real, and to many, a way of life. The poverty line is much lower in some other countries due to an uneven distribution of wealth. In the USA, the wealthy middle class brings the median up and causes the poverty threshold to be higher. However, different factors such as the level and trend of poverty and inequality amongst nations, along with considerable detail on the sources of market incomes and public policies are used to compare poverty levels from nation to nation (Smeeding, 2006, p. 69). With that said, absolute poverty is much more rampant in some other countries than it is in the United States.
For example: in 2008, of the estimated 1.29 billion people living in absolute poverty, 400 million of them lived in India and 173 million lived in China. That’s almost half of the world’s poor living in just those two countries, while the United States hosted just 39.1 million. Everyone reacts to their circumstances in a different way. For example: “in Zimbabwe, a number of girls are turning to prostitution for food to survive” (“Poverty,” 2012). Some turn to violence or steal to get what they need to survive.
For many Children living in poverty, their lives are deemed a failure before they are ever given a chance to succeed. “Research has found that there is a high risk of educational underachievement for children who are from low-income housing circumstances” (“Poverty,” 2012). In some countries, young children can be seen begging in the streets for money. As Abraham Maslow showed in his hierarchy of needs, when people don’t have their basic needs- food, water, shelter, safety, comfort, etc.- it can be very difficult to focus on much more than those. For children living in absolute poverty, these are the very things that they seek after on a
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daily basis. The number of homeless children in America rose from 1.2 million in 2007 to 1.6 million in 2010 (“Poverty,” 2012). Children are the future of this great nation. If so many are forced to grow up in sub-par circumstances without the necessary tools and opportunities to be successful, how can the United States fulfill its potential as a nation.
Poverty rates are on the rise once again. It is everybody’s responsibility to do something about it. Give what can be given. Feed the homeless. Care for them. Provide the poor with an opportunity to better their lives. “Give a man a fish and you’ve fed him that day, teach a man to fish and he can eat for the rest of his life.” Sometimes all that needs to be given is a little bit of time and energy to reach out and attempt to better someone else’s circumstances. In this paper, poverty was defined, the causes and effects of poverty were examined, it was looked at from a world-wide perspective, and the long term effects of poverty in the United States were considered. People can never know what they are truly capable of until they truly apply themselves. Just because poverty has always been an issue in the world does not mean that it always has to be. Take it from a man who spent his life serving the poor and trying to better the world around him:
“be the change you wish to see in the world” -Mahatma Gandhi.
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Poverty. (10/6/2012). Wikipedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poverty. Poverty in the United States. (9/24/2012). Wikipedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poverty_in_the_United_States. Iceland, J. (2006). Poverty in America: A handbook. Berkley and Los Angeles, CA:
University of California Press.
Smeeding, T. (2006). Poor people in rich nations: The United States in comparative perspective. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 20(1), 69-90.