Poverty is widespread
Hardship in America is common. In all of rich democracies, we have the highest rates of poverty among the elderly and also among children. In fact, the majority of Americans will be poor for a significant period of time over the course of their lives: 62% percent will have their income at the bottom 20 percent for a year or more in their adult life, and 42% percent have income for a year or more at the bottom 10 percent of the distribution. About 21% of children live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level.
Americans perceive poverty to be the result of bad decisions and judgments, a moral failure of an individual. Most poverty is, in fact, insecurity because the poor do not have stable, well-paying jobs. Most of the poor do have jobs, but they slip in and out of the official poverty rate on a regular basis. They are living on the margins and are one crisis away from devastation. The immense stress due to being poor causes a cognitive impairment load in both children and adults that reduces their ability to engage in good decision making. Finally, inequality makes it difficult for democratic political systems to function effectively.
There is a convergence among researchers that the single most efficient and effective means of reducing poverty is cash assistance. Successful public policy examples include the GI Bill after WWII, which provided free college education, a living stipend, free medical care, and subsidized mortgages; Social Security lifted 27 million people above the poverty line in 2017; and in the same year, the Earned Income Tax Credit that benefits the working poor with a tax refund helped 8 million Americans out of poverty.
Stephen Pimpare is a nationally recognized expert on poverty, homelessness, and U.S. Social policy. He is also a Faculty Fellow at the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire and teaches courses on American Politics and Public Policy. His second book, A People's History of Poverty in America, received the Michael Harrington Award from the American Political Science Association “for demonstrating how scholarship can be used in the struggle for a better world.” His most recent book is Ghettos, Tramps, and Welfare Queens: Down & Out on the Silver Screen, a history of poverty and homelessness in the movies.