Poverty in the US and Elsewhere
"Conservatives say if you
don't give the rich more
money, they will lose their
incentive to invest. As for the
poor, they tell us they've lost
all incentive because we've
given them too much money.”
The many are not
are poor, they
"If a free society cannot help the many are poor, it
cannot save the few who are rich." ~ John F.
Kennedy inaugural address, January 20, 1961
Poverty in the US
Our typical view of such phenomena is
called “ideographic.” This looks at
the individual case. The person on
Another view is called “nomothetic.”
This word basically means “law”
(nomos) and looks at “general”
circumstances. That is, how might
this condition be in the social realm,
not just for this individual.
Poverty in the US
As such, we might use our “sociological imagination” as
C. Wright Mills suggested not all that long ago. That
is, when a condition applies to an individual only,
there is a personal trouble. But when such a condition
is affecting many people, then there is a public issue
(i.e. a social problem).
For more on this consider reading his work in more
detail at http://socialsciences.nsula.edu/assets/Site-
Poverty in the US
The stigma and stereotyping of poverty in
the United States is intense, and the
media, for whatever reasons, does much
to perpetuate these negative images.
Poverty in the US
Let’s look at some of the common stereotypes.
(Perhaps your personal experience supports
2. Addicted to alcohol or drugs
3. Prefer welfare to employment (“work the
4. The “Welfare Queen,” who is usually black,
drives and Cadillac.
5. The single mother who had more children to
extend welfare benefits.
The Welfare Queen Myth
The term "welfare queen"
was created by then
Ronald Reagan in 1976
during his 1976
concession speech. He
would tell the story of a
woman from Chicago's
South Side who was
arrested for welfare
Reagan’s Speech 1976
"She has eighty names, thirty addresses,
twelve Social Security cards and is
collecting veteran's benefits on four non-
existing deceased husbands. And she is
collecting Social Security on her cards.
She's got Medicaid, getting food stamps,
and she is collecting welfare under each
of her names. Her tax-free cash income is
Reagan’s Speech 1976
Per a New York Times
article Reagan did not
have the facts.
In fact the woman he
referred to had four
aliases, not 89, collected
about $8,000, not
Regardless, the myth
How many are we?
As of 2010, the number of people in the
United States who qualify as being in
poverty is now about 46.2 million people.
That is around 15 percent of our
If, say, the “culture of poverty” thesis is
true, that the poor are deliberately lazy
and live by a different value system that
the rest of the country, then wouldn’t that
make the United States the laziest of all
the industrialized nations?
The Number and Rate of the Poverty in the
Who are our Poor?
2008 HHS Poverty
Persons in Family or
48 Contiguous States and
D.C. Alaska Hawaii
1 10,400.00$ 13,000.00$ 11,960.00$
2 14,000 17,500 16,100
3 17,600 22,000 20,240
4 21,200 26,500 14,380
5 24,800 31,000 28,520
6 28,400 35,500 32,660
7 32,000 40,000 36,800
8 35,600 44,500 40,940
For each additional person,
add 3,600 4,500 4,140
Alyssa lives with her parents in Kentucky. She is an only child but her
grandmother, uncle, and orphaned cousin live close by. Their small, shabby
house, heated only by a wooden stove, is falling apart. The ceiling in Alyssa's
bedroom is beginning to cave in. The family would like to buy a trailer if they
could afford it. Alyssa's mother works at McDonald's and her father works at
Walmart; everything they earn goes towards bringing up their daughter.
Food Stamps SNAP
(Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program)
Per GOVT web page:
It states that it helps low-income people buy the food they
need for good health. You may be able to get SNAP benefits if
•Working for low wages or working part-time
•Receiving welfare or other public assistance payments
•Elderly or disabled and are low-income;
Poverty Numbers by Race 2009
•Non-Hispanic Whites: 29.8 million (12.3%)
•Hispanic: 12.3 million (25.3 %)
•African American: 10 million (25.8%)
•Asian & Pacific Islander: 17.5 million (12.5%)
(US Census 2009)
In 2007, 28.3 percent of households
headed by single women were poor.
(Read that number again please.)
13.6 percent of households headed by
single men and 4.9 percent of married-
couple households lived in poverty.
(National Poverty Center)
Children Under 18 in Poverty
Category Number (in
All children under 18 16,401 22.0
White, non-Hispanic 5,002 12.4
Black 4,817 38.2
Hispanic 6,110 35.0
Asian and Pacific
NOTE: These numbers have gone up quite a bit since 2005
About 12% of the adult homeless
population are veterans.
The U.S. Department of Housing and
Urban Development (HUD) estimates
that 49,933 veterans are homeless on
any given night.
About 1.4 million other veterans,
meanwhile, are considered at risk of
homelessness due to poverty, lack of
support networks, and dismal living
conditions in overcrowded or substandard
housing.National Coalition for Homeless
In Sweden the poverty-level is applied to
incomes at about 60 percent of the
median Swedish income; and in other
European countries it varies between 40
and 60 percent.
In other words, in countries where the
standards for qualifying as being in
poverty are lower than those of the US,
the level of poverty is also lower.
Median income as a measure in
In 1992, $13,000 was the poverty level
for families consisting of an elderly
couple because the median income for
such families was $26,000. But the
official poverty figure was only $8,500,
about one-third the median income.
Wealth and Income Distribution
While income (what you earn regularly) is
a useful measure of social strata, wealth
(what you have) is better.
Let’s look at the US distribution of wealth:
The wealthiest 1 percent of American
households own nearly 40 percent of the
The lowest 40 percent own about 1
percent of the nation’s wealth
The poorest 20 percent of Americans
receive 5.7 percent, and the richest 20
percent receive 55 percent of all after-tax
income—the greatest inequality in the
(Lauer and Lauer 2006)
Country Best off 10th Poorest 10th Inequality
Sweden 152% 56% 2.7
Netherlands 175 62 2.9
Norway 162 55 2.9
Switzerland 185 54 3.4
France 193 55 3.5
U K 194 51 3.8
Canada 184 46 4.0
Italy 198 49 4.1
United States 206 35 5.9
Gini Index by select developed nations
Relative poverty applies to those for whom
the minimum needs have been met, but
who still experience a great deal of
economic uncertainty. They have few
options for the goods they can afford.
Also, although they are often working,
they are underemployeed.
Relative Poverty is what we my think of as
the dominant form in the United States,
and indeed, the rest of the so-called
Criterion for Global Poverty
The UNDP (United Nations
Development Program) has use as a
measure the “less than a dollar a day”
It estimates that 1.3 billion people meet
this measure worldwide.
Also is the capability poverty measure
(CPM) for poverty. It is based upon three
1 The capability to be well nourished
(measured by the proportion of children
under the age of five who are
2 The capability for healthy reproduction,
measured by the proportion of births
unattended by trained health personnel.
3 The capability to be educated,
measured by female illiteracy.
Relative Rates of Poverty
Source: Michael F. Forster,"Measurement of low Income and Poverty in a Perspective of
International Comparisons," Occasional Paper No.14. Paris:OECD,1994.
USA 1986 18.7%
Australia 1985-6 15.7
Canada 1987 15.4
U.K. 1986 12.4
Sweden 1987 12.1
Italy 1986 10.1
France 1984 8.9
Germany 1984-5 8.5
Belgium 1985 5.4
Netherlands 1987 4.7
▪The fact that the poorest Americans are worse
off than the poorest Europeans is confirmed
whatever poverty and inequality measure is
taken as a basis.
While the average American has a higher living
standard than the average resident in the other
countries, this does not hold for the entire
spectrum of the income distribution.
Furthermore, the levels and duration of poverty
is higher in the United States and the United
Kingdom than in Continental European
countries: more people experience poverty and
stay longer in poverty in US and UK.Source: