In the wake of what I hope was a Thanksgiving rich with love, friendship and bounty, it might be the right time to remember that there is another America burdened by poverty. Almost fourteen percent of Americans live well below the financial standards determined to be what is needed to just get by.
According to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the 2019 American Community Survey of Five-Year Estimates, the U.S. poverty rate nationally is 13.4%. This is equal to more than approximately 42.5 million Americans living below the poverty line.
The poverty rate in America has actually gotten better over the five years previous to the survey. In 2014, the share of the U.S. population living below the poverty line was 15.6%: equivalent to more than 47.7 million Americans. Fortunately, both on the national level and on the state level (for the majority of states), poverty rates have declined from 2014 to 2019.
But since the pandemic, it is likely that the number of Americans living below the poverty level will increase as lost jobs and rising prices are taken into consideration.
In the 21st century, the Great Recession helped to increase poverty levels again. As of 2009, the number of people who were living in poverty was approaching 1960s levels that led to the national War on Poverty, instituted by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The 2010 census data shows that half the population qualifies as poor or low income, with one in five millennials living in poverty.
Many sociologists and government officials have argued that poverty in the United States is understated, meaning that there are more households living in actual poverty than there are households below the poverty threshold established by the government. A recent NPR report said that as many as 30% of Americans have trouble making ends meet. Other advocates have made supporting claims that the rate of actual poverty in the US is far higher than that calculated by using the poverty threshold. A study taken in 2012 estimated that roughly 38% of Americans live “paycheck to paycheck.”
In 1969, the Bureau of Labor Statistics issued suggested budgets for adequate family living. Sixty percent of working-class Americans lived below the intermediate budget, which allowed that a family would buy a two-year-old car and keep it for four years.
There was no allowance for savings. It’s difficult to save for that rainy day when there seems no safe harbor from the storm.
The cycle of poverty in America is vicious. For the basic family budget to allow for the purchase of a two-year old car every four years is ludicrous considering there’s not an allowance for savings. When that by-now six-year-old vehicle is beyond repair, the family will incur debt for its replacement—if they even might qualify.
But without a working vehicle, it’s close to impossible for a family’s wage earner to earn a wage.
The automobile issue is reflected in the reality the impoverished face. If a family can’t qualify for a $1,000 mortgage, how are they to afford $1,500 in rent?
Another example is the Sam Vimes “Boots” Theory of Socioeconomic Unfairness, which Terry Pratchett wrote in 1993 as part of Men At Arms.
A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.
But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.
Apply this model to any number of issues facing the poor.
The lack of affordable health insurance can lead to health problems gone unattended. Early detection is not an option to many of those without insurance. The best chance for the afflicted is to hang on until Medicare—if one can afford Part B—kicks in.
A person’s well-being is further jeopardized by poverty when that person cannot afford to eat a healthful diet. High-fat foods are cheap, and their steady consumption can lead to any number of health problems—from obesity to diabetes. One can only guess about the profound impact poverty might have on mental health.
But there are those who think poverty is the fault of the impoverished.
Senator Chuck Grassley (R.-Iowa), a career politician whose estimated net worth is in the neighborhood of $3.2 million, has suggested that poverty can be attributed to those who spend their money on “booze, or women, or movies.”
Many international bodies have emphasized the issues of poverty that the United States faces. A 2013 UNICEF report ranked the U.S. as having the second-highest relative child poverty rates in the developed world. As of June 2016, the International Monetary Fund warned the United States that its high poverty rate needs to be tackled urgently by raising the minimum wage and offering paid maternity leave to women to encourage them to enter the labor force. In December 2017, the United Nations special report on extreme poverty and human rights condemned “private wealth and public squalor,” declaring the state of Alabama to have the “worst poverty in the developed world.”
If somebody living below the poverty line has a checking account, he and/or she likely pays more in bank fees than anybody in the middle class. Even with overdraft protection—an unlikely service to the poor—there can be fees charged for not being able to cover a check.
Again, a vicious cycle.
The rent is due on the first, which is late because payday wasn’t until the fifth. There’s a penalty for being late, which causes an overdraft for which there is a bank penalty. If these fees seem excessive and predatory, it’s because they are. They serve to punish lower-income people for not having enough money in the bank.
Exact amounts of overdraft fees depend on the bank or credit union, but it’s clear that overdraft fees have generated significant revenue for financial institutions. During 2020, banks charged U.S. consumers $12.4 billion in overdraft fees, with the average overdraft fee being almost $25.
While the answers to our most pressing problems are never easy, it would seem prudent to start paying attention.
A hand up is not the same as a handout.
Photography by Courtney A. Liska
Navy Bean Soup
An economical soup that easily serves twelve.
1 Tbs. olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, minced
64 ounces chicken stock
32 ounces of water
1 pound dry navy beans
1.5 pound smoke ham hocks
2 pounds of potatoes, peeled and cubed
Rinse and drain the beans.
Heat a very large stock pot over medium-low heat and add olive oil. Add onion and cook for 4-5 minutes until soft, then add in garlic and cook for 30 seconds more until fragrant. Add the ham and beans, then add in chicken stock and water. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, then cover and let cook for 4 hours.
After 4 hours, add the potatoes, cover, and cook for 2-3 hours more, stirring occasionally. Towards the end, the potatoes should break down causing the soup to become starchy. The ham should fall right off the bone. Season with salt and more pepper if desired.