Overview - Poverty

As of this writing, over 18 percent of Americans are living in poverty. Of these, a small but significant percent are chronically poor—that is, they have been living in poverty for more than two years and/or are part of a cycle of generational poverty. The remaining 82 percent are those caught in "revolving door" poverty because of temporary hard times. By demographics, the group most at risk for both revolving door and chronic poverty are households headed by a single mother. These families also have the highest poverty entry rates. By age group, children are most at risk. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 1994 over 32 percent of all American children suffered poverty for at least two months and 8.4 percent were chronically poor. These rates are fully double those of the next closest age group at risk. In fact, as of the late 90's, over two thirds of all benefits paid by Aid to Families with Dependent Children (the program most closely identified with "Welfare") went to children.

The question of what should be done about poverty and by whom is a source of intense controversy. Countless myths persist about who the poor are and why they are in poverty—myths that increase in frequency and intensity as household income rises. For instance, it is widely believed that the poor are all lazy and that their poverty is a matter of choice. How many of us have heard the endless recycling of stories about people standing outside of shopping malls dressed in rags and asking for handouts, who then supposedly sneak away to the far side of the parking lot and drive away in a BMW? Even if such stories are not urban legends (as many are), when was the last time any of us observed someone to make an honest attempt at generating a statistically significant and properly documented analysis of whether such people are typical of the poor in America? For that matter, when was the last time any of us met someone who claimed to have actually observed a beggar in the act of sneaking away to a BMW? The popularity of such stories has more to do with the needs of those spreading them than with any actual knowledge base regarding American poverty.

In fact, the overwhelming majority of such stories are urban legends. Though welfare fraud is quite real, and some in poverty certainly are lazy in the traditional sense, most American families in poverty are "working poor" families. In such families, one or more parents work, often two minimum wage jobs, and the resulting income barely pays rent much less health care for the family or child care for it's dependents. Many of these people put in more hours of hard labor per week than any of their wealthy critics, and do so suffering poor working conditions and a demeaning lack of respect from the general public that the wealthy would never tolerate for any salary. It is also widely believed that the poor pay no tax. On the contrary, the majority of the poor do pay tax, and although they pay far less tax revenue than their wealthy counterparts, their actual dollar payouts represent a far larger portion of their living costs, and thus are a much larger sacrifice for their families.

Many poor families compromise their food or living budgets to pay taxes while many who are wealthy give out more in tips to bad waiters than they actually pay in tax, particularly after taking advantage of their many shelters. In addition, they also pay Payroll taxes, which are not paid by the wealthy, and unlike the wealthy, they have no assets or investments that would allow them to reduce their payments through the many tax shelters and write-offs our society provides to the well off. I have many well off friends and family members whose base tax brackets are far above those of typical poor families, yet who after itemizing all their shelters and write-offs, actually paid smaller tax percentages than they do. The poor do not have options like these. In addition, though I do know of many upper middle class and wealthy families whose tax payouts are considerable, in almost every case I’ve personally seen, these families have managed their wealth poorly—draining their incomes on lavish consumer spending almost as fast as it comes in rather than making sound investments in tax shelters or funds. This, of course, is neither the government's fault nor the fault of those in poverty!

No one suffers more from the impacts of poverty, and the myths that surround it than children. Children from poor areas face challenges that most middle class and wealthy children do not such as poor nutrition, higher risk of violence, greater risk of domestic traumas, lack of access to adequate schools, and more—virtually none of which are their fault or within their power to change. But of course, it is they rather than their parents who will bear the brunt of any punishments and/or cutbacks in anti-poverty programs. Poor parents face many challenges in providing for them—less of access to quality health care, child care and work issues, the greater risk their neighborhoods face from drugs and violence compared to wealthier neighborhoods, and increased risk for domestic issues.

These problems are particularly apparent for the working poor, who contrary to popular misconceptions among middle class and wealthy communities are the majority of the poor in the United States today. On the other hand, welfare fraud is a very real and taxing problem. If the poor are ever to overcome the challenges they face in our society, it is of the utmost importance that estimates of poverty be accurate and thorough so that funding will be properly allocated and middle and upper class myths about poverty can be dispelled—particularly the ones that are at once most comfortable to the wealthy, and most damaging to the poor themselves.

Myths about poverty have tremendous inertia, partly because they relieve a great deal of uncomfortable conviction, and partly because our society tends to stratify communities by income and privilege in a manner that isolates the poor from the non-poor. Those who do not want to seek them out need never be confronted with them in any meaningful way. Over the years I have discussed poverty and poverty related issues with countless family members, friends, and co-workers who are not poor. A significant majority of these people that the poor are generally lazy and irresponsible and they complain constantly about how their tax dollars "support" them.

Yet in literally thousands of such discussions over a period of years, none of these people has ever been able to give me the name of even one poor person they personally knew, much less tell me anything about that person's character or life story. Such isolation of the wealthy and the poor from each other, largely by choice, breeds smugness, indifference, and a lack of compassion that perpetuates the suffering of poor families. Breaking through these barriers requires reason, compassion, and a proper respect for factual evidence—all of which are in short supply in America's wealthier communities. Until this happens the poor and their children will have little hope for a better life.


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