The Ranks of America's Poor

The ranks of America's poor are on track to climb to levels unseen in nearly half a century, erasing gains from the war on poverty in the 1960s amid a weak economy and fraying government safety net. -- Hope Yen, AP

The news report is so disturbing that it has already been reprinted in multiple publications and on any number of social media feeds. It also invokes many possible responses -- dismay that more people living in poverty; concern that our safety net is crumbling; alarm that children will be poorer than their parents; and distress over the future of our nation as a result.

Those are not my immediate responses. I think about the day-to-day reality of being poor. One recent evening, I went to Wal-Mart with my husband and my 14-year-old son. My son needed something for school the next day, but had forgotten to tell us until that evening so we ran to Wal-Mart to get it. In front of us in the checkout line was an older man buying food. He had Vienna sausage, Spam, day-old white bread, and canned beans. Nothing in his basket needed to be cooked, and nothing cost more than a dollar.

Because of my years working as a social worker I knew this man must live somewhere without a stove or microwave. He might live in a room at an SRO, he might stay at a shelter, or he might live on the streets. As we left, I saw him get on his bicycle with his bag. The bicycle was old and had no headlight. It was late, and the Wal-Mart was on a highway -- not the sort of location you would want to be riding an old bike without a headlight if you had a choice. I could only feel sad.

The 2010 poverty level was $22,314 for a family of four, and $11,139 for an individual, based on an official government calculation that includes only cash income, before tax deductions. -- Hope Yen, AP

It's very easy to look at this number and think only in abstract terms. But I prefer to think in concrete terms -- what do those figures mean when considering what someone needs to live? The poverty level presumes a family of four can live on less than $22,314 a year, but how? Let's assume rent is low -- say $500 a month (and I don't know anywhere a family of four can find a place for that) -- rent alone has already taken up more than a quarter of the year's money. And that rent may not include utilities like gas, electric and water -- let's add another $200 a month for that. Have we talked about transportation? A car with gas, insurance and maintenance can take a significant portion of the remainder, but even public transportation such as buses and subways require money -- travel is not free. What else is essential? Food, clothes, insurance, insurance co-pays, over the counter medication (insurance does not pay for aspirin or Benadryl) child care, not to mention cleaning supplies and hygiene products. Even if a family receives some assistance from the government, that assistance is minimal and limited to food, rent subsidy, or small amounts of cash that usually comes tied to conditions such as work or training programs.

The truth is that it is possible to work full time and still fall under the poverty line. Indeed, $22,314 a year is equivalent to working full time (40 hours a week, for 52 weeks) for $10.73 an hour, well above the minimum wage in most states. And it is not the isolated case where working people make that little. The median wage in the U.S. in 2010 was only $26,364, only $4,050 more than the poverty rate for a family of four. That means half of all U.S. wages are less. Many workers may live in households where other people work, or that they have taken second or third jobs, but it is still a sobering statistic when you translate the numbers into basic necessities like food, shelter, and clothing.

Some commentators say the Federal Poverty Level does not accurately measure poverty. Many have advocated measuring poverty in terms of basic needs. The National Center for Children in Poverty has a Basic Needs Calculator, which evaluates how much it really costs to live in a given state and city (or county). In most places, it costs almost twice the federal poverty level to make ends meet for a family of four. That is without any extras, no books, no trips to the library, no picnics in the park.

I think about how much more expensive basic things, like diapering your baby, become if you don't have much money. And I also think about the disadvantages people without money face in getting a good education or otherwise breaking free from the cycle of poverty. I think about these things because these are the concrete realities of poverty. The numbers are disturbing in the abstract, but when you bring them to a personal level, like the man shopping in Wal-Mart, they are downright heartbreaking.