Poverty in the United States

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Poverty in the United States refers to people who lack sufficient income or material possessions for their needs. Although the United States is a relatively wealthy country by international standards, poverty has consistently been present throughout United States, along with efforts to alleviate it.

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  • The United States has the highest inequality of the richest nations. It has the highest incarceration rate by far. It has among the highest child mortality rates. It has the highest youth poverty rate. It has one of the lowest levels of voter registration in the rich countries. In essence, it scores extremely poorly on almost all of the comparative measures when compared with other developed states. I visited China on one of these missions about a year ago and what I found was a country that has huge problems in terms of human rights, but in terms of extreme poverty, has made an absolutely concerted and genuine attempt to eliminate poverty and has succeeded to an important extent. By 2020, they will in fact have no one living in extreme poverty, unlike the United States. While I don’t for a minute want to suggest that the political system [in China] is desirable or even compatible with democratic standards, I would very much welcome an American government that shows a determination to lift everyone out of extreme poverty. I think that’s what politics should be all about, and it’s not happening in the United States.
  • In Bentham's vision, the poor should be treated like criminals, forced to labor in prison for the private profit of capitalist entrepreneurs. Such a totalitarian idea might seem remote from purportedly enlightened twenty-first-century practices in liberal democracies. Yet both the criminalization of poverty, and the subjection of the criminalized poor to unpaid labor for corporate profit, exist in the United States today.


  • You know, one of the things that continues to bother us in the way in which the moderators don’t even bring up an issue that, before COVID-19, was impacting 43% of this nation. A hundred forty million people, before COVID, were poor and low-wealth, and 62 million people working for less than a living wage. And since COVID, we know that millions have been added to the poverty and low-wealth numbers. We’re well over 50% because of the new poor. We know we had 87 million people before COVID that were either uninsured or underinsured, and now some 20 million people have been added because of people who have lost their insurance because they’ve lost their jobs. Forty percent of the jobs that make $40,000 a year have been lost.
  • When we look at COVID-19, we know that the fissures of systemic racism and systemic poverty have actually allowed this pandemic to have a greater hold on our American society. We know that when we talk about death, we have to be exact, that it’s not just people are dying, poor people are dying. People who make less than $50,000 a year are dying. People are dying who are among the poor, whether it be white, Black —disproportionately among Black and Brown and Indigenous people, and that COVID has killed more people in the U.S. than Americans were killed in battle in five of our most recent wars — Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, the War in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf War. I mean, this is what we’re talking about when we’re talking about this devastation that’s happening among poor and low-wealth people.
  • Even after you adjust for income and education, black Americans are more likely than any other group to live in neighborhoods with substantial pockets of poverty. Black Americans live with a level of poverty that is simply unknown to the vast majority of whites. It’s tempting to attribute this to the income disparity between blacks and whites. Since blacks are more likely to be poor, it stands to reason that they’re more likely to live in poor neighborhoods. But the fact of large-scale neighborhood poverty holds true for higher-income black Americans as well. Middle-class blacks are far more likely than middle-class whites to live in areas with significant amounts of poverty. Among today’s cohort of middle- and upper-class blacks, about half were raised in neighborhoods of at least 20 percent poverty. Only 1 percent of today’s middle- and upper-class whites can say the same. In short, if you took two children—one white, one black—and gave them parents with similar jobs, similar educations, and similar values, the black child would be much more likely to grow up in a neighborhood with higher poverty, worse schools, and more violence. This is an outright disaster for income mobility. Given their circumstances, blacks face a reversal of their gains over the last generation. Simply put, the persistence of poor neighborhoods is a fact of life for the large majority of blacks; it’s been transmitted from one generation to the next, and shows little sign of changing.


  • And in terms of poverty and race in this country, again, you know, one of the things that I really, really wanted to stress is, the level of poverty specifically that you see in the African-American community is not accidental. It’s not accidental. This is part of the process. The process of enslavement involves stealing something from someone. It involves taking something from someone.


  • We have more of it. We have double the child-poverty rate of Germany and South Korea. We have a lot less to go around with, in terms of fighting poverty. We collect a much smaller share of our GDP in taxes every year. It’s different because it’s so unnecessary. We have so many resources. Our tolerance for poverty is very high, much higher than it is in other parts of the developed world. I don’t know if it’s a belief, a cliché, or a myth. You see a homeless person in Los Angeles; an American says, What did that person do? You see a homeless person in France; a French person says, What did the state do? How did the state fail them? Government programs obviously work. I’ve been with people when they receive a housing voucher. They praise Jesus. They fall on their knees. They pray and weep and cry. We have massive amounts of evidence about the benefits of government spending on anti-poverty programs. But poverty is also about exploitation. We have all these anti-poverty programs that accommodate poverty without disrupting it. They’re not eliminating poverty at the root.
  • This is who we are: the richest country on earth, with more poverty than any other advanced democracy. If America's poor founded a country, that country would have a bigger population than Australia or Venezuela. Almost one in nine Americans - including one in eight children - live in poverty. There are more than 38 million people living in the United States who cannot afford basic necessities, and more than 108 million getting by on 55,000 a year or less, many stuck in that space between poverty and security.
  • There is growing evidence that America harbors a hard bottom layer of deprivation, a kind of extreme poverty once thought to exist only in faraway places of bare feet and swollen bellies.
    • Matthew Desmond, Poverty, by America (2023), p. 22.
  • Those who have amassed the most power and capital bear the most responsibility for America's vast poverty: political elites, who have utterly failed low-income Americans over the past century; corporate bosses who have spent and schemed to prioritize profits over people; lobbyists blocking the will of the American people with their self-serving interests; property owners who have exiled the poor from entire cities and fueled the affordable housing crisis.
    • Matthew Desmond, Poverty, by America (2023), p. 189.


  • Averages can conceal a lot, of course. The rise in inflation-adjusted wages, which economists call “real wages,” might not be such good news if it were flowing mostly to the already-wealthy, as it did during the recovery from the Great Recession. In fact, from 1964 through 2018, real wages for most workers hardly budged; almost all gains went to the richest Americans. In the early days of the pandemic, when millions of low-income workers found themselves suddenly out of a job, it would have been reasonable to expect the same trend to play itself out.
    Instead, the opposite happened. A recent analysis from the Economic Policy Institute found that from the end of 2019 to the end of 2023, the lowest-paid decile of workers saw their wages rise four times faster than middle-class workers and more than 10 times faster than the richest decile. A recent working paper by Dube and two co-authors reached similar conclusions. Wage gains at the bottom, they found, have been so steep that they have erased a full third of the rise in wage inequality between the poorest and richest workers over the previous 40 years. This finding holds even when you account for the fact that lower-income Americans tend to spend a higher proportion of their income on the items that have experienced the largest price increases in recent years, such as food and gas. “We haven’t seen a reduction in wage inequality like this since the 1940s,” Dube told me.
    Pay in America is becoming more equal along race, age, and education lines as well. The wage gap between Black and white Americans has shrunk to its lowest point since at least the 1980s. Pay for workers younger than 25 has increased twice as fast as older workers’ pay. And the so-called college wage premium—the pay gap between those with and without a college degree—has shrunk to its lowest measure in 15 years. (The gender pay gap has also narrowed slightly, but far less than the others.)
  • The gold standard for research into the state of Americans’ finances is the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances, released every three years. The most recent report found that, from 2019 to 2022, the net worth of the median household increased by 37 percent, from about $141,000 to $192,000, adjusted for inflation. That’s the largest three-year increase on record since the Fed started issuing the report in 1989, and more than double the next-largest one on record. (According to preliminary data from the Fed, wealth continued to rise across the board in 2023.) Every single income bracket saw net worth increase considerably, but the biggest gains went to poor, middle-class, Black, Latino, and younger households, generating a slight reduction in overall wealth inequality (though not nearly as steep a reduction as the decline in wage inequality). By comparison, median household wealth actually declined by 19 percent from 2007 to 2019.


  • Imagine, for a moment, this scenario: a 200-meter footrace in which the starting blocks of some competitors are placed 75 meters behind the others. Barring an Olympic-caliber runner, those who started way in front will naturally win. Now, think of that as an analogy for the predicament that American kids born in poverty face through no fault of their own. They may be smart and diligent, their parents may do their best to care for them, but they begin life with a huge handicap. As a start, the nutrition of poor children will generally be inferior to that of other kids. No surprise there, but here’s what’s not common knowledge: A childhood nutritional deficit matters for years afterwards, possibly for life. Scientific research shows that, by age three, the quality of childrens’ diets is already shaping the development of critical parts of young brains like the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex in ways that matter. That’s worth keeping in mind because four million American kids under age six were poor in 2018, as were close to half of those in families headed by single women. Indeed, the process starts even earlier. Poor mothers may themselves have nutritional deficiencies that increase their risk of having babies with low birth weights. That, in turn, can have long-term effects on children’s health, what level of education they reach, and their future incomes since the quality of nutrition affects brain size, concentration, and cognitive capacity. It also increases the chances of having learning disabilities and experiencing mental health problems.
  • Can children born into poverty defy the odds, realize their potential, and lead fulfilling lives? Conservatives will point to stories of people who cleared all the obstacles created by child poverty as proof that the real solution is hard work. But let’s be clear: Poor children shouldn’t have to find themselves on a tilted playing field from the first moments of their lives. Individual success stories aside, Americans raised in poor families do markedly less well compared to those from middle class or affluent homes—and it doesn’t matter whether you choose college attendance, employment rates, or future household income as your measure. And the longer they live in poverty the worse the odds that they’ll escape it in adulthood; for one thing, they’re far less likely to finish high school or attend college than their more fortunate peers. [...] Yet childhood circumstances can be (and have been) changed—and the sorts of government programs that conservatives love to savage have helped enormously in that process.
  • Even before Donald Trump’s election, only one-sixth of eligible families with kids received assistance for childcare and a paltry one-fifth got housing subsidies. Yet his administration arrived prepared to put programs that helped some of them pay for housing and childcare on the chopping block. No point in such families looking to him for a hand in the future. He won’t be building any Trump Towers for them. Whatever “Make America Great Again” may mean, it certainly doesn’t involve helping America’s poor kids. As long as Donald Trump oversees their race into life, they’ll find themselves ever farther from the starting line.


  • The tendency of our free market economy has been to produce a growing number of jobs that will no longer support a family. In addition, the basic nature of capitalism ensures that unemployment exists at modest levels. Both of these directly result in a shortage of economic opportunities in American society. In addition, the absence of social supports stems from failings at the political and policy levels. The United States has traditionally lacked the political desire to put in place effective policies and programs that would support the economically vulnerable. Structural failing at the economic and political levels have therefore produced a lack of opportunities and supports, resulting in high rates of American poverty.


  • Once we looked on massive unemployment only as a problem of the ghetto. But now it appears in Youngstown as well as Watts; in the steel mills of Buffalo and the aerospace industry of California and the textile mills of Lowell. Tragedy falls upon a man when his plant closes, or his job is taken by a machine in Japan or an exporter of shoes from Italy; when he suddenly loses his medical coverage and the seniority and pension rights built up over the years, and feels the clutching fear of not enough money to meet the mortgage or put dinner on the table. Crime is not only a problem for racial minorities. Millions of citizens of every race live every day under the silent oppression of violence. The new life within our cities is not the dream we saved and worked for: triple-locked doors, a dread of empty and dark streets, and fumbling noises at the door. Those who work hard for ordinary living often find their dreams disappointed. Their neighborhoods are not safe. Their schools do not teach. New appliances fall apart. Tax laws relieve the rich. Social welfare helps the poor. Nobody helps them. We have recognized racial oppression, but not job oppression. One worker endures the killing monotony of the assembly lines; another works on top of coke ovens where the bricks are 180 degrees under his feet; another, hour after hour, sits in the fumes of the city bus he drives.
    • Sargent Shriver, August 8, 1972, as quoted in Historic Documents of 1972. Washington, DC: CQ Press.


  • Indeed the results of giving people more resources were so positive that now more than 60 mayors across the country have committed to guaranteed income as a tool to abolish poverty, with about half already running pilots in their own cities. We absolutely can implement bold policies on the local, state and federal levels that will dramatically change the trajectory of people’s lives, eliminate poverty and improve the nation’s productivity. But we can only achieve that kind of change if we disrupt and replace the current narrative on poverty based on racist, classist, sexist and xenophobic stereotypes. It’s a narrative that blames people for their struggles — labeling them as lazy, corrupt, unintelligent or worse — and deems them undeserving of our trust, our investment or even their own dignity.
    This framing allows politicians to ignore and maintain blatantly unjust systems that keep people trapped in poverty — like jobs that pay unlivable wages or students at poor schools not having adequate, if any, access to resources like guidance counselors and extracurricular activities that affluent schools provide.
  • A narrative that blames people for not rising out of poverty also permits policymakers to look the other way as so many young people are denied access or priced out of continuing education, even when we know higher education is necessary (though not a silver bullet) for advancing in today’s economy. It’s a narrative that contributes to continual mass incarceration that breaks up families and strips talent and potential from Black and brown communities... How will we pay for these and other new policies? We can start by demanding — as most Americans do — that wealthy corporations and people finally pay their fair share in taxes.




"My Final Solution" by Kyle Broflovski. My dad is the smartest guy in the whole wide world. He has taught me that all poor people are actually things called clods. I wanna live in a world of only gods so my idea to make America better is put all the poor people into camps.
If we get rid of them, there will be nothing but rich people, and there won't be any hunger, poverty or homeless people, 'cause they'll all be dead. The End.
  • Kyle: [voiceover] "My Final Solution" by Kyle Broflovski. My dad is the smartest guy in the whole wide world. He has taught me that all poor people are actually things called clods. I wanna live in a world of only gods so my idea to make America better is put all the poor people into camps.
Gerald: WHAT!?
Kyle: [voiceover] If we get rid of them, there will be nothing but rich people, and there won't be any hunger, poverty or homeless people, 'cause they'll all be dead. The End.
Gerald: Oh God, what have I done?

See also