Poverty might mean different things in different parts of the world and to different people, but it is largely defined as being unable to afford a minimum standard of living. The United States has come a long way in addressing the problem, but progress seems to have slowed despite the recent years of economic recovery.
In many ways, the problem has even escalated. Though the economy has added millions of jobs since the recession ended, many of the jobs created are not the same as jobs that were lost. In many areas, the problem of poverty has worsened during the recovery.
Poverty is perhaps the most persistent of problems, with consequences that can span a lifetime, be transferred across generations, and loom in the minds of individuals and families living at the edge of poverty.
Most people, in one way or another, are familiar with poverty or the concept of poverty. From the nation’s largely uncounted homeless population to unemployed Americans looking for work to low-wage service industry workers to single parents working multiple jobs, for millions Americans, poverty is a daily struggle that often results in deprivation and requires sacrifice. Though the United States was built on the doctrine that financial status is the result of personal merit, religious teachings encourage helping the poor and the work of alleviating poverty has become woven into the fabric of U.S. society.
Poverty extends to practically all aspects of U.S. society, and yet, despite the many anti-poverty policies, it remains largely unaddressed. It is also relatively undiscussed in public discourse and incompletely understood by the public and academics alike.
A study published in July 2015 in the journal PLOS ONE found that 60 percent of people will experience at least 1 year of poverty in their lifetimes. The Urban Institute’s Well-Being and Basic Needs Survey found that nearly 40 percent of non-elderly adults report difficulty meeting basic needs such as food, health care, housing, and utilities.
The U.S. Census Bureau’s long-standing official poverty measure created in 1963 currently helps determine eligibility for 82 federal programs. Research has shown the benefits of these programs are greater than was previously thought, especially for elderly Americans and children. Despite the effectiveness of these programs, however, the official poverty rate is widely believed to grossly underestimate the true level of economic deprivation in the United States.
Regular discussions about poverty are largely brushed aside in an age where the media is dominated by partisan politics, entertainment, sports, and daily news. Media outlets and publications devote entire business sections to what people running big companies do. Every day, countless hours and pages of information focus on gossip about celebrities and wealthy sports figures. There is virtually no regular coverage of America’s poor.
24/7 Wall Street analyzed data from government and private sources, interviewed experts, and studied the latest research examining the problem. We have endeavored to connect the dots in a gallery of 17 charts covering various aspects of poverty in America.
How poverty is measured
The U.S. government determines who lives in poverty by calculating a threshold income level. Anyone not meeting that threshold is said to live below the poverty line. There are different poverty thresholds depending on the size of the family.
The way the government calculates this threshold was determined in 1963 — and it has not changed since. The calculation defines the poverty level for a family of four at three times a typical family’s food budget. It was based on the 1955 Household Food Consumption Survey, which found that the average low-income family of three or more persons spent one-third of its total after-tax income on food.
Today, based on this calculation and adjusted to inflation, a family of four (two adults and two children) is considered to be living in poverty if it has a pre-tax annual household income of $24,858 or lower. The annual income poverty threshold for an individual is $12,488.
According to this measurement, there were 39.7 million Americans living in poverty last year. The official poverty rate in 2017 stood at 12.3 percent, a slight improvement from the 2016 rate of 12.7 percent. Since 2014, the poverty rate has fallen 2.5 percentage points, from 14.8 percent. While this was the third consecutive year poverty has declined significantly, the poverty rate remains above the 2000 low of 11.3 percent.
Federal poverty thresholds do not take into account a range of important factors:
1) Because pre-tax income is used, amounts paid in taxes or received in tax credits, as well as state variations in tax burdens, are not accounted for;
2) Federal and local non-cash social assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) formerly known as food stamps, housing programs providing rent subsidies, and care received through Medicaid are not factored into the measurement;
3) Child support payments, work expenses such as transportation costs, and out-of-pocket medical expenses are not considered in the measurement;
4) The only basic household expense considered in the official rate is food. This means the costs of education, health care, furniture, appliances, recreation, alcohol and tobacco, and other items — and the proportion of a typical budget each represents — do not currently have any effect on the official poverty level.
5) The differences in costs of living also are not considered in the official poverty rate. Though there are significant regional price differences, especially in housing costs, a family of four is considered poor whether it earns less than $24,000 in San Jose, California, or in Akron, Ohio.
Even if these factors were taken into account, large groups of U.S. residents living in economic hardship would be left uncounted. Homeless individuals, undocumented migrant workers, children under 15 living with unrelated family-members, and prisoners, to name just a few, are each groups of people at high risk of material deprivation completely absent from official poverty counts.