The current official poverty measure in the United States was developed in the 1960’s. Poverty thresholds or the annual amount of cash needed to minimally support families of various sizes are updated annually to account for inflation.
The National Poverty Center (University of Michigan) has tabulated selected poverty thresholds (2010 US Census data; cash thresholds do not include public housing, Medicaid, employer-provided health insurance and food stamps). For example, a poor, single person under 65 is someone with an income of $11,344, a single parent with two children is defined as having an income of $17,568, and a family composed of two adults and two children can be considered poor if they meet the threshold income of $22,113.
The numbers in selected decades paint a rosy story of the decline in American poverty rates. In the late 1950s, the overall American poverty rate was 22.4% (39.5 million people) and the numbers declined steadily throughout the 1960s to a low of 11.1% (22.9 million people) in 1973. From 2000 onwards the poverty rate increased each year to 12.7% in 2004. That was before the financial meltdown of 2008. Subgroup analyses of the same data show that, in 2010, 27.4% of blacks and 26.6 % of Hispanics were poor, compared to 9.9% of non-Hispanic whites and 12.1% of Asians. Moreover, in 2010, 16.4 million US children, or 22.0%, were poor.
The numbers can be adjusted with different formulae and cost-of-living determinations in specific areas; however, the reality is that the harsh economy has made many of us aware of people who are sliding from the precarious comfort zone of the middle class into the abyss of poverty. The minds of some people may also become clouded by tarring the working poor with the same brush as the homeless person trying to pry cash out of one’s wallet with a sob story or the activities of career-criminals.
Many people aspire to live in a Westport mansion and no one wants to live in a Norwalk homeless shelter or Bridgeport tenements for that matter. If one moves beyond the rose-tinted view of TV “talking heads"and looks at certain neighborhoods, it seems that one of the consequences of a bad economy is multiplying the number of people that reenact a daily ritual of begging for food or finding a place to sleep for the night. When homeless graduates (some of whom may have criminal records) from back-to-work training programs have to vie for jobs with middle-class jobseekers, it is a safe bet that they will usually get the short end of the stick.
Poverty is viewed by some people as weakness or something that people "bring upon themselves"; however, ethical sensibilities dictate that we should not turn a blind eye to the plight of the poor, even as the middle class and the rich remain the focus of national attention. Any latent guilt or genuine concern we feel can be assuaged by tithing to a church, multitasking Android smartphone users can make charitable donations via the benevity app (Apple has chosen not to follow suit), and those preferring a personal touch can volunteer their time at any of the local charities tending to the needs of the poor.
Many unsung heroes perform daily service helping less-fortunate individuals to survive against all odds. It feels good to help others and that feeling can be magnified across society if we help people to help themselves.
In a country well governed poverty is something to be ashamed of.
In a country badly governed wealth is something to be ashamed of.
Confucius (BC 551-BC 479) Chinese philosopher