Poverty in America

Recently, an organization of photojournalists committed to alleviating poverty in the United States, created a photo documentary about poverty called In Our Own Backyard, and an accompanying website called AmericanPoverty.org. Here is a glimpse of their work:

What is poverty?

In the Spring 2011 issue on Poverty in CharitiesUSA, Ruth Liljenquist speculates about how people might define poverty: "I'm sure there would be a range of answers. Some might talk about poverty in purely economic terms. Others might see it as a lack of opportunity or lack of access to the things that make for a prosperous life. Still others might discuss poverty as a condition or culture. No doubt, we'd hear some stereotypes about poverty, but we'd also likely hear some well-informed opinions on the matter . . but therein lies the problem. If most Americans don't understand poverty, how can we hope to solve it?"

We are prompted to think again and differently about a question that many in our country think has already been answered. How might we define and measure poverty better? How do we understand poverty, people who are poor, and the barriers they face in climbing out of poverty?

Who are the poor?

In Think and Act Anew, Fr. Larry Snyder explains that poor individuals can be grouped into three categories "defined by their life experience, rather than solely by their economic status":

  • People who need help but lack the skills and abilities necessary to succeed in the work world--possibly because of a lack of education, experience, and cultural and social skills. These are often the intergenerational poor.
  • People who need help but have a limited ability to care for themselves because they are sick or have physical or mental limitations that make it difficult or impossible to provide for their basic needs. Children and the elderly are likely to fit in this category.
  • People with skills and experience but who still need help, possibly because they are limited by their circumstances, such as the current economic downturn with its foreclosures and millions of jobs lost. This could include the many thousands of underemployed working well below their skill levels.

What does it mean to be poor?

The federal poverty rate relies solely on an income measure of poverty. For example, a family of four is poor if they earn less than $22,350 in annual income. This measure of poverty comes from a formula that was developed in the 1960s. Over the years, however, social and work conditions, costs, and family structures have changed so that millions of people above and below that threshold cannot meet their basic needs. Measuring poverty by what it actually costs to meet basic needs, rather than by  income, means that we must redefine what it means to be poor. For example, a person is poor if:

  • They cannot afford housing that is clean, safe, and in good repair.
  • They cannot afford nutritious food for themselves and their family on a regular basis.
  • They cannot consistently pay their utility bills even though it is a priority.
  • Their children are not adequately clothed for school with clean clothes that fit and are in good repair, and they do not have proper clothing for work.
  • They cannot afford to go to the doctor for any kind of illness for fear that a visit will be beyond their means to pay for it.

What are the barriers that keep poor people from living with dignity?

There are other factors besides income that may impact a person's ability to live self-sufficiently and with dignity. For example, the American Human Development Index measures human development through three indicators:

  • a long and healthy life, measured by life expectancy
  • access to knowledge, measured by educational attainment and school enrollment
  • a decent standard of living, measured by median earnings.

In addition to meeting basic needs, this kind of measure is focused on the enlarging people's freedoms and opportunities, and enlarging their well-being.

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