Poverty In The United States: An Increasing Reality

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This article was initially published in August 2011. 

In August 2011, Dr. Cornel West, a Professor at the University of Princeton, and Tavis Smiley, a radio and television host (notably for PBS) embarked on a Poverty Tour in 16 poor communities across the United States which has attracted a high level of media attention. Their aim is to put the spotlight on this important issue, which they consider to have been largely forgotten by President Barack Obama.

Although this initiative stirred a great deal of controversy, as some considered the tour to be directly aimed at harming Barack Obama and his African-American support base, it occurred just in time to kick-off the 2012 presidential election campaign. It succeeded in shedding light on this important and real issue which is only now becoming part of the national debate.

Current situation

The data is alarming. According to the OECD, although the United States is the third richest country in terms of GDP per head ($45,674), it is the fourth poorest country among its members, in front of Mexico, Turkey, and Israel, in terms of individuals living below the poverty line?

Percentage of population living under the poverty line in 2009, by State and in Puerto Rico.

In 2009, the US Census Bureau reported that 14.3% of the US population (estimated at approximately 300 million people) lived under the poverty line. This represents an increase of more than 1% from 2008. Hispanics and African-Americans (nearly 25%) are the most affected by poverty in the country. 

The poverty line stood at $21,954 (15,119€) for a family of four, which means that those living below this line are likely to have a very low standard of life. If we take into account those that live with twice as much as the poverty line (approximately $44,000 for a family of four) and who are at high risk of slipping below the line, the number increases to 60 million people.

The statistics released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation following the end of the Poverty Tour in 2011 are even more alarming as they clearly show the impact of the recession on juvenile poverty, which increased by 18% since 2000 to 20%. Forty-two percent of US children live in a household earning less than $43,512 (26,969€) a year for a family of four. Eight million children have at least one unemployed parent (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the rate of unemployment stands at 9.1%) which is twice the amount than in 2007.

The challenges of helping the poorest segment of the population

Assistance to those less fortunate is mainly provided by the federal, state and local governments. One of the most important federal programs is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (Food Stamps) which allows the poorest members of society to have access to food. “This is most likely one of the most reactive programs. It was incorporated into the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 because it is the prototype of an efficient counter-cyclic program which reaches not only families in need, but also their communities,” explains Jodie Levin-Epstein, Deputy Director of the Center for Law and Public Policy. Indeed, the use of food stamps in local shops, for example, stimulates entire neighborhoods.

However, the government is confronted with an increasing demand for food stamps due to the recession. One person out of seven in the United States receives food stamps, with a record 45 million people reported to be benefiting from the program in May 2011.

A food bank program shuts down after budget cuts in New York. © Anita Kirpalani

The financial crisis not only had an important impact on the poverty rate in the United States, but also impacted government programs and financing for NGOs fighting poverty at the local level which attempt to survive by pulling together their ever shrinking sources of financing. Budget deficits have indeed forced the federal and state governments to cut certain programs, in particular those related to education and health services, despite that these are the very ones that allow people to get out of poverty. The situation has become increasingly worrisome considering that the Recovery Act – already considered as weak by many – is coming to an end.

“We haven’t seen any jobs being created at the bottom of the ladder. There has been little recognition of the fact that the job market has changed: salaries are stagnating and both parents are struggling to earn what one parent earned in the 50s and 60s. This is the number one challenge for our country,” commented Levin-Esptein.

Her organization also participates in Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity, originally created by non-partisan foundations in order to request that the candidates in the 2008 presidential elections take poverty into account in their campaigns. This initiative should be repeated in 2012.

Deeper roots

The main idea arising from the current debates is that the poor have been ignored and aren’t being listened to by the government. Aniket Shah, a member of Amnesty International’s Board of Directors and co-author of Re-Developing America: Global Perspectives on America's 21st Century Challenges (University of Pennsylvania Press, October 2012) points out a number of the structural causes that explain this.

From an economic standpoint, poverty is not just about the recession. "The United States has one of the lowest percentages of social expenses compared to other OECD countries,” states Shah, who points a finger at “the constant bleeding of federal financing since the Reagan administration”.

At a time when the debates on the federal debt are becoming increasingly fierce – notably because of Warren Buffett’s suggestion to increase taxes for the super-rich – Shah believes that increasing state revenues is a solution: "The State’s revenues need to increase from 15% to 20%. What we often forget is that those times in which the US has been most successful (first man on the moon, MedicareMedicaid…) are also the times in which the marginal tax rate was the highest. The US has a culture of service and shared sacrifice but it is disappearing over time.”

Shah, who previously served as the right hand of the economist Jeffrey Sachs, also points out causes that are directly related to the US political system. “It is a system which, structurally, ignores the poor: it is archaic because it has frequent elections (every two years) whereas it is not complex enough to allow for different voices to be represented, especially not those of the poor,” he explains.

He attributes this to the majority suffrage as well as the bi-party system which only allows for the Republican and Democratic parties to be in power.

In the meantime, structural changes are not on the agenda. However, after Labor Day (first Monday of September) Barack Obama should present new initiatives for job creation - a plan that more than one in seven Americans is impatiently awaiting: the poor of the leader of the Free World.

Photos: Bottle collection in Battery Park, New York City: © Amaury Laporte

Closing of the Food Bank in the East Village, New York City: © Anita Kirpalani

Translated from French by Shawna Carroll

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