Chapter 2: Poverty
Social Problems in the News
“Survey: More US Kids Go to School Hungry,” the headline said. As the US economy continued to struggle, a nationwide survey of 638 public school teachers in grades K–8 conducted for Share Our Strength, a nonprofit organization working to end childhood hunger, found alarming evidence of children coming to school with empty stomachs. More than two-thirds of the teachers said they had students who “regularly come to school too hungry to learn—some having had no dinner the night before,” according to the news article. More than 60 percent of the teachers said the problem had worsened during the past year, and more than 40 percent called it a “serious” problem. Many of the teachers said they spent their own money to buy food for their students. As an elementary school teacher explained, “I’ve had lots of students come to school—not just one or two—who put their heads down and cry because they haven’t eaten since lunch yesterday” (United Press International, 2011).
The United States is one of the richest nations in the world. Many Americans live in luxury or at least are comfortably well-off. Yet, as this poignant news story of childhood hunger reminds us, many Americans also live in poverty or near poverty. This chapter explains why poverty exists and why the US poverty rate is so high, and it discusses the devastating consequences of poverty for the millions of Americans who live in or near poverty. It also examines poverty in the poorest nations of the world and outlines efforts for reducing poverty in the United States and these nations.
Although this chapter will paint a disturbing picture of poverty, there is still cause for hope. As we shall see, the “war on poverty” that began in the United States during the 1960s dramatically reduced poverty. Inspired by books with titles like The Other America: Poverty in the United States (Harrington, 1962) and In the Midst of Plenty: The Poor in America (Bagdikian, 1964) that described the plight of the poor in heartbreaking detail, the federal government established various funding programs and other policies that greatly lowered the poverty rate in less than a decade (Schwartz, 1984). Since the 1960s and 1970s, however, the United States has cut back on these programs, and the poor are no longer on the national agenda. Other wealthy democracies provide much more funding and many more services for their poor than does the United States, and their poverty rates are much lower than ours.
Still, the history of the war on poverty and the experience of these other nations both demonstrate that US poverty can be reduced with appropriate policies and programs. If the United States were to go back to the future by remembering its earlier war on poverty and by learning from other Western democracies, it could again lower poverty and help millions of Americans lead better, healthier, and more productive lives.
But why should we care about poverty in the first place? As this chapter discusses, many politicians and much of the public blame the poor for being poor, and they oppose increasing federal spending to help the poor and even want to reduce such spending. As poverty expert Mark R. Rank (Rank, 2011) summarizes this way of thinking, “All too often we view poverty as someone else’s problem.” Rank says this unsympathetic view is shortsighted because, as he puts it, “poverty affects us all” (Rank, 2011). This is true, he explains, for at least two reasons.
First, the United States spends much more money than it needs to because of the consequences of poverty. Poor people experience worse health, family problems, higher crime rates, and many other problems, all of which our nation spends billions of dollars annually to address. In fact, childhood poverty has been estimated to cost the US economy an estimated $500 billion annually because of the problems it leads to, including unemployment, low-paid employment, higher crime rates, and physical and mental health problems (Eckholm, 2007). If the US poverty rate were no higher than that of other democracies, billions of tax dollars and other resources would be saved.
Second, the majority of Americans can actually expect to be poor or near poor at some point in their lives, with about 75 percent of Americans in the 20–75 age range living in poverty or near poverty for at least one year in their lives. As Rank (Rank, 2011) observes, most Americans “will find ourselves below the poverty line and using a social safety net program at some point.” Because poverty costs the United States so much money and because so many people experience poverty, says Rank, everyone should want the United States to do everything possible to reduce poverty.
Sociologist John Iceland (Iceland, 2006) adds two additional reasons for why everyone should care about poverty and want it reduced. First, a high rate of poverty impairs our nation’s economic progress: When a large number of people cannot afford to purchase goods and services, economic growth is more difficult to achieve. Second, poverty produces crime and other social problems that affect people across the socioeconomic ladder. Reductions in poverty would help not only the poor but also people who are not poor.
We begin our examination of poverty by discussing how poverty is measured and how much poverty exists.
Bagdikian, B. H. (1964). In the midst of plenty: The poor in America. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Eckholm, E. (2007, January 25). Childhood poverty is found to portend high adult costs. New York Times, p. A19.
Harrington, M. (1962). The other America: Poverty in the United States. New York, NY: Macmillan.
Iceland, J. (2006). Poverty in America: A handbook. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Rank, M. R. (2011). Rethinking American poverty. Contexts, 10(Spring), 16–21.
Schwartz, J. E. (1984, June 18). The war we won: How the great society defeated poverty. The New Republic, 18–19.
United Press International. (2011, February 23). Survey: More U.S. kids go to school hungry. UPI.com. Retrieved from http://www.upi.com/Health_News/2011/2002/2023/Survey-More-US-kids-go-to-school-hungry/UPI-20871298510763/.