Andrew L. Yarrow is a senior research advisor at Oxfam America who studies inequality and low-wage work in the US.
Americans are struggling. The middle class is disappearing. Younger generations may not do as well as their parents.
None of this is news. Yet, behind the widespread recognition that our economy remains sour well into the “recovery” is the troubling reality that 1 in 3 Americans—more than 100 million people—struggle to make ends meet, living in poverty or “near poverty,” based on income thresholds set by the Census Bureau.
While there is much talk about the dangers of our nearly $17 trillion federal debt, there is little public discussion of the even greater economic crisis that consigns 50 million people to poverty and tens of millions more to low-wage jobs that barely lift them out of poverty. That is why Oxfam America has launched Voices on US Poverty, an initiative intended to stimulate discussion about US poverty. Essays from more than two dozen writers, which are being published in news media throughout the country, consider the specific challenges facing poor families and children, immigrants, minorities, and the working poor, as well as the broader nature of economic injustice. They bring such perspectives as economics, theology, journalism and social activism, and offer ideas on how to truly fix our economy in ways that benefit all Americans.
“There are clearly moral and economic problems when millions of Americans are desperate for work and unable to meet their families’ basic needs,” Maj. Gen. Roger R. Blunt and Maj. Gen. Paul D. Monroe Jr., two military leaders participating in Oxfam’s initiative, write.
“A free-market system that does not provide opportunities for all of us to succeed undermines one of our most convincing arguments against totalitarian regimes and state-run economies that often oppose our interests abroad,” they say.
What does it mean to be poor? Wealth and poverty are relative terms that vary greatly over time and by country. The World Bank defines poverty as “pronounced deprivation in well-being.” This can mean that people are unable to meet basic human needs (housing, food, clothing, health care), but in the US it can also mean that they struggle to stay afloat with jobs that pay just a few dollars above the US$7.25-per-hour minimum wage, with no benefits or job security. These are not the desperately poor in developing countries who live on less than $2 a day, but they are American men and women and families who can barely afford a cheap apartment and groceries, who patronize pawn shops and payday lenders, who can’t afford to get sick, and who are likely to have more debt than savings. Government benefits and charity help them—somewhat, but not enough to enable them to lead decent lives.
The numbers are chilling:
- One in six Americans lives below the federal poverty line, with incomes less than $11,722 a year for an individual and $23,497 for a family of four.
- The number of people in poverty is the highest in the 53 years that statistics have been collected, and the poverty rate has risen every year since 2006.
- Another one-sixth of Americans lives in near poverty, with incomes between the poverty level and twice the poverty level.
- About 6.6 percent of Americans, or 20.4 million people, live in severe poverty, with incomes less than half of the poverty threshold, or about $5,800 for an individual and $11,700 for a family of four.
- Forty-four percent of children live in poverty or near poverty.
- More than half of African Americans and Hispanics have incomes below 200 percent of the poverty level.
The picture looks even worse using an alternative measure of poverty developed by the National Academy of Sciences and the Census Bureau. Under this new Supplemental Poverty Measure, which takes into account regional differences, health care, housing, payroll tax and other costs, as well as government benefits. (See comparison of the measures below.) The number of Americans with incomes below twice the poverty level shoots up to about 150 million, or half the entire population.
“Poverty is about power, not scarcity,” Ray Offenheiser, Oxfam America’s president writes. “As Americans, we believe that our nation must lead. Poverty and inequality, and the social exclusion they breed, are wrongs to be righted, whether they occur in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, or the United States.”