Poverty in America

Recent posts have discussed the high standards of eldercare found in Denmark and the superior quality of life in Finland due to generous government supports. These government sponsored social programs greatly surpass those found in the United States.

Americans are accustomed to seeing themselves as Number 1 on the world stage. And in some areas America undoubtedly holds the top position. America is No. 1 in terms of military might, far exceeding the amount spent on armaments and military personnel by both its enemies and its allies.

Global Defense Budgets-1America is also No. 1 in terms of gun related murders, outstripping the murder rate in other developed countries.

death-by-violenceAnd America leads the world in the percentage of its citizens who are imprisoned (with 760 million people behind bars).

incarceration rates1Other than ranking first in some rather insignificant categories like the number of plastic surgeons, breast augmentation, and wine consumption, America falls far behind other developed countries in providing for its citizens.

According to The Global Competitiveness Report 2012-2013, which ranks 144 countries on a broad range of factors related to their economic competitiveness,

The United States ranks 34th in years of life expectancy, 41st in infant mortality rates, and 34th in health and primary education.

In a UNICEF report on Child Well-Being in Rich Countries published earlier this year, the U.S ranks #26 of 29 developed countries for overall child well-being and #28 of 29 for child poverty.

Poverty is an enormous problem in the United States.

A full 15.1% of Americans live in poverty, with one in fifteen Americans living in deep poverty (receiving less than $11,510 for a family of four). Without some form of government assistance, the poverty rate in the U.S. would be twice as high – affecting nearly 30% of the population.

Recent OECD studies show a larger percentage of Americans working at low wage jobs than in any other developed country.

Employees-Low Wage

Half of all jobs in America pay less than $34,000 a year. The poverty line for a family of 4 is $23,000 a year, and 25% of all jobs pay less than this amount. 28% of all working Americans receive poverty-level wages.

Since the mean annual salary is only $34,000, it follows that 50% of all working Americans receive wages either below or not far above the poverty line. Children are often hit the hardest.


22% of all children in the United States live in poverty, including 39% of African-American children and 34% of Latino children. Over 1 million children enrolled in public schools are homeless.

Traditionally, the poor were concentrated in America’s large inner-cities (the ghettos) and in the rural South. Most poverty relief programs were designed to address issues in those areas. But in recent years poverty has spread to the suburbs. Over the last decade millions of Americans have lost good paying jobs and either taken temporary or part-time low wage jobs, or been added to the growing list of the long-term unemployed. As the Austin Chronicle reports,

Once the secure base of the middle class, suburbs have become the fastest-growing home of American poverty. Since 2000, the number of suburban poor has surged by 64%, twice the rate of urban poor. By 2011, America’s suburbs held 3 million more poor people than were in our core cities.

What has the government been doing to help these people? In recent years we have seen a steady stream of initiatives coming from Republican members of Congress and Republican State Legislatures that impose major cuts to social assistance. The poor are being targeted as “freeloaders.” They are being blamed for their own misery – even the working poor. We are told America cannot afford to maintain its social programs. All the while, governments refuse to free up money from military expenditures or to close tax loopholes for large corporations.

America prides itself on being the richest nation on earth. But it has allowed its vast wealth to become concentrated in the hands of an elite few who use their positions and influence to lobby for broad privileges. The average American does not benefit from this strategy, and those who live in poverty are directly harmed by it.

Ralph Nader, in his recently published book, Told You So, presents a very negative view of the current situation. As quoted recently in The Guardian, he says,

The cruelty is unbelievable here. We are an advanced third world country. We have great military equipment and science and technology. Half of the people in this country are poor. They can’t even pay their bills. They’re deep in debt.

Americans can do better. America’s greatness lies in its communitarian spirit, in its citizens banding together to support one another and solve their problems together. Yes, the challenges today are daunting: massive poverty and underemployment, poorly funded schools, inadequate social services, inefficient health care, and ineffective government. But solutions can be found as long as people have the imagination, the courage and the will to pursue them.

Four days before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King Jr. addressed a gathering at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. He said,

There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.

Do we?

About politspectator
Edward Clayton grew up in the US but has lived in Canada for the last 4 decades. He is a long time peace activist and committed to issues of social justice and good government. He reports on Canadian, American, and global politics from a Canadian perspective.

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