Have you ever pondered how it would feel to live in poverty or how people in America become poor in the first place? And why they can’t the find a way out? Do you ever think it could never happen to you?
In reality, there are many more people who are one step away from needing help to survive and on the verge of poverty than is perceived. Poverty is a fact of life that has existed in societies for centuries and although it is presently as real today as it was in the past, the extent of it seems hidden and invisible.
“There are still people losing jobs… [and] … homes every day, I always wonder what do they do when they lose a home? Where do they go? ‘Cause we don’t always see them after that.” Source: Sandy Beaver, Executive Director of The Place of Forsyth County Inc.
We know there are poor people, we see the “Save the Children” commercials on television, and sometimes we’ll see a homeless person begging for money and/or food or even lying in the street on cardboard boxes. Most of us are aware of the poor because we know there are programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) , Public Assistance and Medicaid, but do really know how many people are experiencing poverty or understand how they become poor and what it is to be poor?
Recently, after attending a lecture about the economy in my Sociology of the Family class, I became increasingly curious as to how people view poverty. Some of the concepts discussed seemed somewhat unrealistic. One idea that really stunned me is that people normally do not remain in a state of poverty for a long period of time, in other words, someone may slip under the poverty level temporarily but then is able to rise above it with support from social/ family institutions and resources. Interestingly, in our textbook: Diversity in Families (9th Ed) it is stated : “For the most part, poor families experience short-term poverty spells as they slip in and out of poverty.” Although, this may be true, it is hard to accept, at least from the perspective of a person (like myself) who has experienced long-term poverty.
Another questionable idea presented during the lecture is that the working class such as police officers (a specific example used) are able to bounce back into financial security after going through a particular hardship; for example, losing a week’s paycheck since it is likely the working “middle” class has additional resources that the poor do not have such as credit cards to use as a “cushion”.
There are police officers, other blue-collar and even white-collar workers who live on the edge and struggle to survive just like the “official poor” that cannot even afford to miss one day’s pay let alone an entire week. They are part of the invisible poor, those who are suffering in silence, people who society would never expect to be poor or near poor. A N.Y. Times article: Older, Suburban and Struggling, ‘Near Poor’ Startle the Census, uncovers the reality of poverty:
“Perhaps the most surprising finding is that 28 percent [near poor] work full-time, year round. These estimates defy the stereotypes of low-income families. Among them is Phyllis Pendleton, a social worker who proudly displays the signs of a hard-won middle-class life. Living paycheck to paycheck is how she describes her survival strategy: ‘One bad bill will wipe you out.’”
It is also difficult to grasp is the idea that poverty is temporary when considering the “official measure of poverty” ,that is, the calculations that ascertain whether or not someone is officially poor ; for example, a family of 4 living on less than $22,314, as well as the poverty guidelines used to determine financial eligibility for certain federal programs.
How can a family of four live a well-rounded life on & 22,314 or even, 30,000? It seems impossible anyone can live a healthy life on such a minuscule amount of income without suffering and even if they rose above the poverty “line” at some point, how can they escape the slippery slope of poverty altogether and not slip back under it?
Furthermore, the ambiguous “line” that lies between being considered poor or not is equally as curious, because those above it are on the verge of becoming officially poor. A recent article: Soaring Poverty Casts Spotlight on ‘Lost Decade’ shows how there are many more people who are poor than previously calculated and even more are being pushed into poverty due to the economy: “Another 2.6 million people slipped into poverty and the number of Americans living below the official poverty line is 46.2 million.”
This means that one in six Americans are now poor and one in fifteen are extremely poor: “The recession has caused families of all races and ethnicities to lose wealth because of a loss or reduction in the value of critical assets, such as homes. The vast differences in median household wealth also help explain why black and Latino poverty rates are more than two times higher than that of white families.” Source: Huffington Post
“Blacks experienced the highest poverty rate, at 27 percent, up from 25 percent in 2009, and Hispanics rose to 26 percent from 25 percent. For whites, 9.9 percent lived in poverty, up from 9.4 percent in 2009. Asians were unchanged at 12.1 percent.” Source: N.Y. Times
“The new poor could be you, me, your neighbor, and your church member, somebody who has been affected by the economy. Many of our people who have come for assistance used to be our donors. And they’ll say, ‘I never thought I’d have to do this, never in my wildest dreams.'” For instance, Raymond Price, a combat vet who came home from Afghanistan last year with severe post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is one of the “America’s new poor” he says: “All I want is a job. I don’t really want anybody’s handouts.” Source: CBS News : America’s New Poor
An NPR Story (listen here): Census 2010: Saw Poverty Rate Increase, Income Drop: reveals the scope of poverty in the lives of everyday people such as: Andre Colter, a construction worker who lost his job and is now homeless. Colter willing to take any job at this point says, “No one dreams of becoming homeless. No one dreams of becoming unemployed”.
“The Census Bureau says short of sleeping on the streets, many more people are doubling up, living with friends and relatives. Since the start of the recession, the number of doubled-up households has grown about 10 percent to almost 22 million. And this past spring, almost six million young adults ages 25 to 34 were living with their parents – over a million more than before the downturn began. The [Census] bureau says almost half of these young adults would be considered poor if their parents weren’t supporting them.” Source: NPR transcript
Poverty has many faces and can be seen in the lives of ordinary people, such as the lives of those revealed in a recent CBS article (see below) who were waiting on a food bank line at a Chicago care center, they are people who have become “… trapped like so many others, destitute in the midst of America’s abundance” Source: CBS : Poverty in America: Faces behind the figures
Kris Fallon and her husband who lost their jobs two years ago, as well as, their house and car and now feel as if “...there is no way out”. Kris states: “I never understood why there were so many food pantries and why people couldn’t just get on their feet and get going, but now that I’m in it, I fully understand.” She said, “I sometimes feel like I am a loser … I have never been unemployed and I never thought I would be going through this, ever.”
Bill Ricker, a 74-year-old repairman and pastor with two college degrees has been feeling the strain of poverty since 1980 when he lost his job and now lives in a rundown trailer on an income so small he has to rely on food pantries and thrift shops for basic needs.
Ken Bargy, a 58-year-old man who hasn’t work for five years is too ill to work and has to constantly put off paying a light or phone bill to get food for his family of five that are living on a budget of 18,000.
Brandi Wells, a waitress who lived “pay-check to paycheck” for years and at 22 began living “penny to penny” after losing her job because she couldn’t afford a babysitter. As a result, she suffered homelessness and hardship, she said, “I didn’t realize that it could go so bad so fast… ‘I was working. I was trying.’ …‘I didn’t deserve to lose my job. I worked as hard as I could.”
Pamela Gray, a home attendant and single mother of 3 teens was hurt on the job about a year ago and had to quit, now she works odd jobs, sells Mary Kay cosmetics, and gets free food at churches and pantries to make ends meet:”… when you don’t work like you used to every day… you have to go pick up food where you can.”
Monique Brown, a mother of four worked two jobs which she lost in 2008 during the recession, after breaking up with her husband she became homeless and lived in a Salvation Army shelter, today she still has not found a job that will allow her to juggle motherhood and a career and currently lives on her disabled child’s checks, food stamps and donations.
Tim Cardova, a McDonald’s manager lost his job two years ago and his wife Sandra who was also eventually laid off had to live out of their car for some time and are now in a shelter, Tim 41, and Sandra 51 have not been able to find a job but have not given up faith, and are just asking for one more chance.
The real-life stories of the aforementioned people are from all walks of life which demonstrate how easily one can slip into poverty and how difficult it is to get out of it completely. After researching topics on poverty, I realize it is difficult to understand poverty because it has many dimensions. The definition of poverty and how it is measured is as variable as the levels within it. Not everyone views poverty in the same way. For example, this article shows how those who are established as poor in America by goverment standards may be considered “rich” by other schools of thought. And challenges the measure of poverty by addressing the number and types of assets and amenities America’s “poor” have, such as, cars and internet service:
“According to the government’s own survey data, in 2005, the average household defined as poor by the government lived in a house or apartment equipped with air conditioning and cable TV. The family had a car (a third of the poor have two or more cars). For entertainment, the household had two color televisions, a DVD player, and a VCR….’Other household conveniences included a washer and dryer, ceiling fans, a cordless phone, and a coffee maker.'” Source : The Heritage Foundation: What Is Poverty In America?
It’s hard to think of someone as poor when there are so many riches in America “the land of opportunity”, it almost seems impossible. And some may feel that being poor means not having anything at all, the fact remains, however, there are many levels of poverty. Whether or not someone is nearly poor like “middle class” social worker Phyllis Pendleton, or extremely poor like Andre Colter, homeless construction worker, or have been living in poverty for either a short or long period of time, they are still struggling to survive in one way or another. As long as there are people who have to stand on mile long public assistance lines at social service agencies, food banks and churches for basic human needs, the scope of poverty’s existence will be evident.
“Any way you look at it…, there is an unacceptable level of human suffering in our country.” Source: David Henderson , Huffington Post
Pat has been homeless for 14 months,when asked: What is the worst thing about being homeless? he answered “Being invisible, cold and not knowing where you are going to sleep each night. Also being ridiculed and spit on.” Source: The Homeless, not Hopeless Project ; Transition Projects
Listen here for more news about poverty:
Food Banks Can’t Keep Up With Demand : The TakeAway of WNYC Radio
Data Shows Latinos Hit Hardest by Recession : The TakeAway of WNYC Radio
Cornel West and Tavis Smiley on “The Poverty Tour” : The TakeAway of WNYC Radio
Read here for more news on Poverty:
America now a food stamp nation: Capital Hill Blue
Americans’ Ability to Feed Their Families Nears 3-Year Low: Gallup: Huffington Post
Lack of Jobs leaves More Suburban, Middle Cass Sliding Into Poverty; Chicago Sun Times
More City Families are falling into poverty : WNYC News
Need Help? See here for assistance : NYC 311 Social Services
A poem on poverty: Poverty on 5 (inspired by the human resources food stamps office (5th fl) on Monterey Avenue in the Bronx)