On Being Poor in America: Recent Data Reveal Some Surprising Facts

I have been reading a rather lengthy report on poverty in America written by Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield of the Heritage Foundation. The Full and lengthy report is here: What is Poverty in America Today? I am going to present some excerpts here.

The authors  use substantial data from the Census Bureau and the Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS) of the Department of Energy to paint a portrait of poverty in America.

Their data suggests to me that we ought to consider distinguishing three basic categories when it comes to understanding our obligations to those with less: the impoverished, the poor, and the needy.

First there is the category of the impoverished, those living in deep poverty. Let me begin by quoting from the report:

Each year for the past two decades, the U.S. Census Bureau has reported that over 30 million Americans were living in “poverty.” In recent years, the Census has reported that one in seven Americans are poor. But what does it mean to be “poor” in America? How poor are America’s poor?

For most Americans, the word “poverty” suggests destitution: an inability to provide a family with nutritious food, clothing, and reasonable shelter. For example, the Poverty Pulse poll taken by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development asked the general public: “How would you describe being poor in the U.S.?” The overwhelming majority of responses focused on homelessness, hunger or not being able to eat properly, and not being able to meet basic needs.[1]

Yet if poverty means lacking nutritious food, adequate warm housing, and clothing for a family, relatively few of the more than 30 million people identified as being “in poverty” by the Census Bureau could be characterized as poor.[2] While material hardship definitely exists in the United States, it is restricted in scope and severity. The average poor person, as defined by the government, has a living standard far higher than the public imagines.

[Only] a small minority are homeless.

To a family that has lost its home and is living in a homeless shelter, the fact that only 0.5 percent of families shared this experience in 2009 is no comfort. The distress and fear for the future that the family experiences are real and devastating. Public policy must deal with that distress. However, accurate information about the extent and severity of social problems is imperative for the development of effective public policy.

Hence, it would seem that those we call impoverished, those who live in poverty, are those who do not have the capacity for  even the basic essentials such as shelter, clothes, food and water.  Largely this is the homeless population this country and they exist in true poverty.

The report goes on the to distinguish the second tier of the less fortunate who I would call the poor. Here we see those who are not homeless, they do have food and many basic amenities, but they are in a financially fragile condition.  Decades ago we would often refer to these as the working poor. However, in the age of welfare a significant number of the poor do not work, and hence that distinction not longer fully applies. Among the poor there is a both a range and a variability. The report begins with the poor in the most fragile state and says,

[T]here is a range of living conditions within the poverty population. The average poor family does not represent every poor family.

Fortunately, the number of homeless Americans has not increased during the current recession.[6] Although most poor families are well fed and have a fairly stable food supply, a sizeable minority experiences temporary restraints in food supply at various times during the year. The number of families experiencing such temporary food shortages has increased somewhat during the current economic downturn.

Thus, among the poor are those who remain at risk of impoverishment due to lack of food and basic essentials. Perhaps this is seasonally due to fact that some jobs have seasonal qualities. Some also have illness like asthma, which are affected by the season. Perhaps too the vulnerability is due less to seasons than to the economy. In a downturn in the economy like we are experiencing  their working hours are cut, or their job eliminated. Other family factors such as the health of family members or various crises make the poor at the lower end edge more toward permanent, temporary or seasonal impoverishment and make them vulnerable to true destitution.

But among the poor are those who do not range toward the bottom, near destitution. They may be stably poor in the sense that their income is below the Federal Poverty line, but in no way are they destitute. Here is where the report makes some findings that some may find controversial, but they seem well backed up by extensive data. The report says,

The federal government conducts several other surveys that provide detailed information on the living conditions of the poor. These surveys provide a very different sense of American poverty.[8] They reveal that the actual standard of living among America’s poor is far higher than the public imagines and that, in fact, most of the persons whom the government defines as “in poverty” are not poor in any ordinary sense of the term.

The Chart below shows information for 2005 for poor U.S. households (those with cash incomes below the official poverty thresholds). While poor households were slightly less likely to have conveniences than the general population, most poor households had a wide range of amenities. As Chart 2 shows, 78 percent of poor households had air conditioning, 64 percent had cable or satellite TV, and 38 percent had a personal computer.[14]

Hence it is clear that those beneath the poverty line are not always lacking in a number of significant conveniences and comforts. The numbers are based on the aforementioned Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS) published each year by the US Department of Energy. Toward the bottom of the list the lack of Internet access is of significance, since it is an important way of connect with the wider world and thus a help up and out of poverty if well used. But, other things being equal, being poor in America is nothing like the like the utter destitution Americans often see in other parts of the world, even close at hand in the Caribbean Islands. In such places the poor often live literally in cardboard boxes and shanties with no running water, electricity or plumbing. In is clear that most of the poor in America are impoverished,are not destitute. Many are vulnerable as stated above, but not in true poverty as I have suggested is a term that should be used for the truly destitute.

A further feature in the report is the encouraging note that we have made progress in ensuring that the poor live in better conditions. While it is often held that the War on Poverty has done nothing to push back the poverty level (still at 30%), that may not be entirely true. As we have seen, the Federal Government defines a certain level of income to indicate whether one is poor or not. But income is not the whole story. Frankly the poor live in better conditions today than they used to as seen in the chart above. Frankly we ALL live better than we used to, and the poor are no exception. The report says,

[There has been] Improvement in Poor Households over Time. Because the RECS has reported on the living conditions of the poor for several decades, it is a useful tool for charting the improvement in living conditions among the poor over time. For example, the chart at right shows the percentage of all households and the percentage of poor households that had any type of air conditioning between 1970 and 2005. Although poor households were less likely to have air conditioning in any given year, the share of households with air conditioning increased steadily for both groups over the 25-year period. By 2005, the two rates converged as air conditioning became nearly universal in U.S. society.

Another example is the share of all households and the share of poor households that had a personal computer from 1990 to 2005. Personal computers were rare in 1990 but spread widely through society over the next 15 years. Computer ownership among the poor increased substantially during the period. In 1990, only 5 percent of poor households had a computer. By 2005, the number had risen to almost 40 percent.

I will say that living among the poor for almost seven years and continuing to advocate for them even now has brought me into many a Public Housing Development. And although the amenities listed above were in evidence the living conditions were poorly affected by dilapidated housing and poorly maintained housing units. Much of this is caused however by the social conditions existent in those projects. I recall working hard for a particular housing development in Southeast Washington to be renovated which it was, in 2001. By 2007 when I left the neighborhood it was boarded up and vacant once again.

The usual scenario is that a small percentage of residents become junkies, (it only takes a few). Then they get desperate for money to buy drugs or pay off a drug dealer. So they begin to strip out the appliances and plumbing in their apartment, and sell them for drug money. The damage spreads through the building since they wreck the plumbing, cause leaks and water leaks to the floors below before building maintenance has time to shut it off. Next comes mildew and electrical problems. This leads to further vacancies. As a building begins to go vacant, vacant apartments are perfect targets for more desperate vandals. Once the process starts, a building can go from filled to vacant and derelict in six months.

This is not the case in every public housing unit, just the worst ones. In this case the report issues a surprising finding, that to some extent does not comport with my experience:

Of course, the typical poor family could have a host of modern conveniences and still live in dilapidated, overcrowded housing. However, data from other government surveys show that this is not the case.[19] Poor Americans are well housed and rarely overcrowded.[20] In fact, the houses and apartments of America’s poor are quite spacious by international standards. The typical poor American has considerably more living space than does the average European.[21]

Forty-three percent of all poor households own their own homes. The average home owned by persons classified as poor by the Census Bureau is a three-bedroom house with one-and-a-half baths, a garage, and a porch or patio.[22]

Nearly all of the houses and apartments of the poor are in good condition. According to the government’s data, only one in 10 has moderate physical problems. Only 2 percent of poor domiciles have “severe” physical problems, the most common of which is sharing a bathroom with another household living in the building.[23]

Well, not so sure the conditions I saw were that pleasant but I did live among the poorest of the poor deep in the Government Housing Projects, usually poorly run and maintained.

The final category I would list but cannot develop here now is the category of the needy. The needy may have no financial concerns at all. Their needs may center more around spiritual, emotional and psychological things. Further, perhaps due to age or handicap they may need physical assistance. Young children surely need teaching. Troubled teenagers need counseling and mentoring. Alcoholics need support groups and assistance to remain sober, and so forth. This category has little to do with money, food or shelter, but it can be related to it.

In the end, I suggest a threefold distinction as stated above: the impoverished, the poor, and the needy. Surely the truly impoverished need out immediate and on-going help to provide their basic need. The poor too need support, for many of them are financially vulnerable without some assistance to lend stability to their lives. The needy have various concerns that we ought to be personally willing to address as well.

But poverty, and being poor and needy in America is less monolithic than most assume and coming to see the complexity can help us target our resources more effectively.

We have obligations to the needy, the poor and the destitute, but it also helps to see that there is a range to the problem. Further, we actually have made some progress, if we look deeper into the data. The graph at the top of this page shows the steep decline in the Black poverty rate from 1966 to now. The strong emergence of the Black Middle Class is a hidden secret of this land.

Progress HAS been made – There is work to do, but simply saying that the poverty rate in this land has never budged from 30% may not be an accurate picture, for how the poor live and what it really means to be poor in America are poorly understood by most Americans. Progress has been made.

This Video presents some of the startling realities of destitution in a country not far from our own shores. Many parishes here in Washington have sister parishes in Haiti:

46 Replies to “On Being Poor in America: Recent Data Reveal Some Surprising Facts”

  1. Epistle 223
    My some thoughts about “the homily” of Msgr. Charles Pope are here below:
    Firstly, in the homily, Msgr. Charles Pope commented on scientific article of Robert Rector, Senior Research Fellow of DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society, and Domestic Policy Studies.
    Generally speaking, Msgr. Charles Pope basically agreed with Robert Rector, but Father suggested consider distinguishing three basic categories: the impoverished, the poor, and the needy.
    Thus, theme of the homily is the poor.
    Secondly, now permit me to discuss some matters to relate to the theme of the homily hereafter:
    I am Doctor of Socialist Political Economy, but substantially I am Doctor of Economics. My doctoral thesis talked about the System of National Accounts – SNA.
    Of course, I can understand fully scientific article of Robert Rector and comments of Msgr. Charles Pope.
    As a Doctor of Economics from 1996, I understood that Socialist Political Economy as well as Economics can’t solve some problems of the poor.
    Therefore, from 2004 to this day, I have followed the Catholic Church to study Lord Jesus’ Gospel in order to contribute solving problems of human beings in general, and for the poor in particular.
    Lord Jesus’ teachings for the poor written in Matthew 5:3, in Matthew 6:1-4; and in Matthew 19:16-30.
    According to Lord Jesus, there are two solutions for the poor: Giving to the needy in secret and to teach them Lord’s Prayer so that they pray to God.
    Lord Jesus also gave two solutions for the rich: Teach Ten Commandments for them and they sell their possessions and give to the poor. Then follow Lord Jesus.
    I am the poor, a poor Doctor. Therefore, I only read Lord’s Prayer and to accept charities.
    I have no money for giving to the needy. The poor either ought to obey Lord Jesus’ teachings or they still are the poor./.

    1. To: Nguyen Thuong Minh, I’m sorry but I just don’t understand your point. Hopefully, you are not implying that I should not personally present nourishment to the starving. And if this is only alternative then— are you suggesting to just have them pray and go away?

  2. I appreciate you sharing this data. I had a sense that something along these lines was occurring. One other convenience that is not reflected in this data is the matter of travel. In this post I am only able to identify a problem in hopes viewers can contribute possible solutions to it. Speaking intuitively, there seems to be a small percentage of poor who don’t own a car. So travel to pick up groceries, seek medical help and other support requirements is difficult. I have heard of food deserts which I understand are areas that are fifteen minutes or further away from grocery stores. With one in four children going to bed hungry here in America, we need to be strategic in making these conveniences accessible.

    1. Thanks for this reminder about stores. One of the things we did when I was living in a poorer neighborhood was to work with the grocery Chains to place stores in Southeast Washington. Both Giant and Safeway have done so in the past decade.

      I must say though that I doubt 1 in 4 children go to bed hungry in this Land. Even among the poor obesity is a much more visible problem among the young. I’d like to know what is meant by hungry. It is true that in our school cafeteria we often fed children, but the point there was more wholesome food rather than the junk food they often had a steady diet of.

      1. Speaking from personal experience: Going hungry in America often means you only have 1 or 2 meals a day, as opposed to the three considered standard – and those “meals” may consist of a single pb&j or bologna sandwich; for a child, that’s hardly adequate nutrition. Hunger in America is far more prevalent than you think, as there are many who are still among the working poor, people who make too much money to qualify for federal help and barely enough to cover the bills along with groceries and gas.

        Yes, America does have a problem with obesity. Part of the reason it does have that problem is because the cost of foods that are genuinely good for you – such as fruits, vegetables, milk, eggs, and meat – is very high compared to the cost of sugar-laden foods and beverages. When you only have $20 a week to buy the groceries for your household, you can’t afford to buy things that won’t last you more than a day or even two. You have to buy what you know will stretch that full 7 days. That means choosing raman noodles at 15 cents per package, even though you know it isn’t that healthy, over fruit at 3 dollars a pound. That means choosing to buy packets of kool-aid at 15 cents per package so you can make a gallon to drink since water isn’t necessarily a good choice in your area versus milk at 3 or more per gallon. That means choosing the cereal that has a high sugar content but only costs $3 per 46 oz bag versus the cereal that has a higher nutrition value but costs almost $5 for a 15 oz box.

        Furthermore, what you own may be a holdover from an income you had in the past and is not indicative of your current situation. I’m a perfect example. In the past, I worked as a graphic designer making $18 an hour and my husband worked in the IT field also making $18 an hour. Disposable income was something we had quite a lot of, so we ended up with 3 computers, a large screen TV, two video game systems, and a household full of nice furniture.

        Now, things have changed. I am the sole supporter of our family. I make $8.25 an hour. We have no beds as the blow-up mattresses we bought when we moved to this small town have given way and we can’t afford to replace them. We aren’t on food stamps. We make just barely enough to pay our bills with a very little left over for groceries and gasoline. The only reason we have the refrigerator, the stove, the window ac unit, and the washer & dryer is because those came with the apartment we rent. We have no microwave, and we are down to two functional computers. We still have the large screen tv and our video game systems, but they are years old.

        It’s true that our poverty isn’t like the stark poverty encountered in foreign countries. In most places, the homeless can access the internet through a public library although in our town you have to prove that you’re a resident of the city before you can even touch a computer at their public library. However, just because there are gadgets doesn’t mean that the poor aren’t still poor.

  3. Thank you for this post. When I hear statistics like these, it makes me wonder how much of an obligation we really do have to help the “poor” in our country. Do they have more of a right to our resources simply because they live in the same country than do those on other countries who are much much poorer? As a family, we have to decided that we will no longer donate to domestic charities (except pro life causes) and only to international charities.

    1. Well OK, but be careful with the data. Many of the poor in this country, though not destitute, remain in a fragile situation. Hence, there is some obligation we have to help them become less so. That said, it is clear that many in other parts of the world are clearly in critical condition. I only wish I could be more sure that what I give actually gets to them. Catholic Relief Services is pretty reputable in ensuring that.

  4. Admittedly this is just an anecdote, not data, but here goes. I saw that the Bishops have proposed a kind of fasting that involves spending only as much as the lowest level of food expenditure described by the USDA. I did the numbers for my family (me, my wife, our seven children). We will not be fasting in this way, because we already spend considerably *less* than the lowest level. And in case you’re wondering, we don’t just eat beans and rice all the time–we eat pretty well, in fact.

    The credit goes to my wife. She is an extremely good shopper, and on top of that, she buys ingredients and cooks things. We don’t eat out, we don’t buy convenience foods, and we build our menu around what’s on sale, not on what appeals to us at the moment of purchase.

    What I’m driving at is the following. I suspect that a lot of people who don’t have much money would be much better off if they had the right habits and skills–in short, if they were frugal and thrifty. Your money goes a lot farther than you think, if you know what you are doing, and if you have enough impulse-control to stay within your means. These are skills that poor people need! (Although if your neighborhood doesn’t have a proper grocery store, your options are limited.)

    (In fact, well-to-do people need those skills too! We know families who earn far more than we do, and who have fewer children, and who are in terrible financial shape. They don’t live within their means, and then they complain about how poorly paid they are. They even claim they can’t afford children, and then they cite those bogus numbers about how much children cost. Trust me, those numbers are bogus, and I have the children and the paystubs to prove it.)

    1. I had the same reaction as you when I learned how much in food stamps one can receive. While I am not as frugal as your wife, my family would enjoy a much higher standard of food living if I spent that much on groceries! I remember one time reading a quote a from a poor person who was bemoaning the fact that they could only eat at McDonald’s. My upper-middle class family views eating at McD’s as somewhat of a luxury. I totally agree that education in smart shopping and nutrition, as well as learning self-control would go a long ways in helping people be better, healthier consumers.

  5. I choose Catholic Relief Services to donate to–most of the donations received go to helping the poor to help themselves and not for the CEO’s pocketbooks..You can find ratings for charities on the internet and see how they spend what they receive. Food for the Poor has made its Ceo’s very wealthy–is a charity CEO really entitled to a $300,000 a year paycheck? Along with other members of his family getting paid in large figures (this info is on the internet, I don’t make it up). So approach with caution and research before sending a check..

  6. I always thought poverty in american was a relative term compared to true realities of poverty in countries like modern day Sudan and Somolia, I don’t think I have ever seen someone in these countries on TV with a cell phone or a pair of expensive Nike sneakers, much less a roof over their head or a freezer stuff with steaks (thanks to food stamps).
    I think for the most part our welfare system is a racket…while I do think in some cases it helps people who really need the assistance and are willing to use it to improve their disposition, but I think it mainly keeps people stuck in a cycle of poverty that’s difficult break due to human nature, ie., why work when the government (tax payers) will subsidized you, have more kids since you get more money, etc.
    I think we definitely need a restructure of the welfare system, one that places the burden on recipents to look for work, re-education, a cut off of benefits after a certain time frame, maybe a garnish of parents wages to help subsidized the payments to young girls having babies while in high school, etc., the bottom line this is not substainable.

    1. I certainly understand your frustrations with the welfare system. But one thing worth recalling is that, as I try to point out in the article, we have pushed back poverty in many ways. While the welfare system needs lots of changes it is not wrong to suggest that it has helped in the past to turn back the tide. That said, there are some terrible features of it, esp. the fact that it rewards single motherhood.

      1. I’m sorry I have to challenge you on this point:

        “the fact that [welfare] rewards single motherhood.”

        What is the alternative? To punish single mothers? Are you suggesting that single mothers – whatever the cause of their being single mothers, whether it be divorce, fornication, or widowhood – aren’t already facing enough challenges? Being a single mother is already one of the most important indicators of poverty. Why do we feel the need to judge these individuals as less deserving of aid when they are often the ones most in need of aid? Just some questions.

        1. Well the solution is to either reward intact families with higher benefits or at least not to give a woman MORE if there is no husband. Even if she just got the same that would be a start. By why pay her more for what is less helpful. If you reward something wrong more than something good, you’re going to get more of something wrong.

          1. I see what you’re saying, and I agree that there is a degree to which welfare mitigates the consequences of certain poor choices. I just don’t see any way around it. Welfare or government aid is usually not earned, it’s freely given to individuals meeting needs-based eligibility requirements. For what you are suggesting to work, the government would have to create panels to inquire and make judgments about the underlying reason that someone is a single mother – after all, not all single mothers are so through wrong choices on their parts. Furthermore, even if they are single mothers because of a poor choice, this doesn’t undermine their need or the needs of their children, and I don’t see how giving them help “rewards” their choice any more than the free gift of grace “rewards” our bad choices. Yes, I know there is a difference – that grace must be accepted with a co-operating will that turns from those bad choices – but the fundamental concept is the same. Plus, prevenient grace is completely unmerited, which makes that an excellent analogue.

  7. What about medical care? Before I reached 65 and became eligible for medicare and medicaid, I SUFFERED from lack of medical care, although I received some help from a private free clinic, or it would have been worse. Now I consider myself to be wallowing in luxury compared to most of the people in the world, although I am considered poor by the government’s standard. I have hot and cold running water, heat, air conditioning, a phone, a tv, a computer that my kids gave me, iternet, a library for all the books I could want. I have no car, but a fine bicycle and bus service for bad weather.

      1. I lived in Canada for 8 years and had universal coverage as all developed countries except the US do. However, I would rather die for lack of health care than have care that included abortion on demand.

  8. I agree with what MG said. We need to not only give to the poor, but people of every socioeconomic background need to learn the skills to budget and manage the money they have. I remember volunteering a to help with our youth group’s workcamps each summer in High School. We worked among the poor in West VA and North Carolina weatherizing their houses and other projects. It always struck me that the families we were helping had empty refrigerators and worn clothing, but almost every house had a nice color TV and/or a stereo system as well as a nice car. The TV’s, stereos and cars were status symbols to them.

  9. To Elcid,

    Welfare has many controls in the system regarding work requirements for the recipients, many states no longer reward the family when they have more children and some progressive states like Wisconsin (before Walker decided to eliminate social programs) routinely seek out child support for the single parent. Some southern states like Texas and Louisiana, don’t prosecute for failure to pay child support or require immediate paternity or child support orders. Welfare has kept families off the streets.

  10. Perhaps we ought not rely on the folks at Heritage Foundation for an analysis of poor people. We are what we possess? That’s not a Catholic perspective!

    The U.S. Catholic Bishops published a statement in 1996, “A Catholic Framework for Economic Life.” It defines the basic necessities of life as food, clothing, shelter, education, health care, safe environment, economic security.” It states that people have the right to economic initiative, to productive work, to just wages and benefits, and decent working conditions, and to organize and join union or other associations.

    It is interesting that Heritage ignores education and health care in its study. Those two things contribute to the vicious cycle of poverty; the government’s expanded role in those two areas since the 1960s has not helped.

    The recent Congressional debate on the debt reveals that our government is not interested in economic opportunity for the poor, and many more of us will be poor if the policies of our government are not changed. We need to pay attention to the income disparity that the government creates through laws and regulations. Just about anyone could come up with a dozen things Congress could do to reduce the debt and deficit, but they could not do even one thing. This is an outrage! And the Committee of 12 shows how power is being consolidated within a smaller group of elites.

    Our federal policies continue to fail to live up to the principles on which our nation was founded. Welfare in all its forms busted the concept of family. Education used to mean more that writing, reading, and arithmetic, it included good citizenship and taught the virtues. There was a time when one could start a business and make a go of it, and work up the economic ladder, but that is not today’s reality. Now, Congress bails out the banks and corporations that fail, and focuses compliance efforts on the middle class. Corporate welfare is busting the middle class.

    Before he was elected to office, Ronald Reagan asked the famous question, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” I do not think his economic policies truly helped the United States, but he at least had a clue about what a President should be thinking about.

    I recently read an analysis of the rich which broke out the different tiers among the “rich.” It is an interesting read, especially juxtaposed to the Heritage Foundation study. Here is the link:


    Monsignor, thank you for discussing the Heritage Report. We all need to be paying attention to pocket book issues, making sure that we are fairly analyzing the issues, and holding our elected officials accountable.

  11. Most material poverty in America is the result of bad decisions – having children out of wedlock, committing a felony, drug/alcohol abuse, etc. Most of the poor in the developing world did nothing wrong and just happened to be born in the wrong place. America’s poverty is spiritual.

    1. Hi – I think you make a good point about the difference between here and poverty in the developing world.

      But can I just say that I don’t know that we can say “most” poverty in America comes from bad decisions. Maybe, but maybe not.

      For example, in some places the rents are so high, due to the greed of landlords, that no one working minimum wage or thereabouts, or even sometimes people making a good deal more than minimum, can make ends meet without having to live in a total ghetto. Even a married couple with only a child or two, with both parents working, just can’t make it on what some jobs pay in some areas.

      And sometimes it just happens that the person could not go to college for some reason or has barriers that we who are more blessed can’t even fathom. If you think about what it would be like to have absolutely no money at all growing up, no car, no way to get a car, no family to help, no credit to get loans, not even enough money to get a decent suit to go on an interview, etc…maybe you did badly in school because of a rotten distracting home life, druggie parents or whatever, and so didn’t learn much, didn’t have good enough grades to get any help if you wanted to go to college, and had the bolt the house asap… it can be tougher than people think to crawl out of poverty. It’s not always the person’s own fault. I think it’s the exceptional person who can dig out from that – we can’t expect it of everyone.

      Still, sexual promiscuity is a major cause of poverty especially among women, I can tell you from working at welfare that many of the people I dealt with were in that situation. I also saw that many really, truly, didn’t know any better because everyone they knew lived as they did. Well, actually, the middle class and rich sleep around too, they just have enough money to care for themselves even so. Should we be surprised the poor make bad choices when the whole culture is promoting bad choices, and the middle and wealthy classes make bad choices too?

      Also, there are in fact some very noble poor women who made a mistake but were willing to suffer poverty rather than have an abortion.

  12. Very interesting information. For a long time, especially after my experience with welfare work, I have felt that the numbers quoted about how many poor or hungry people we have here are often exagerrated, and this info basically confirms that. When social agencies or the govt makes things sound worse than they are to generate donations or support for policies, it backfires, making people suspicious of helping the poor, which is the last thing we want.

    I still have to say that, if someone has cable television on an ongoing basis, to my mind that person is not actually poor in a normal definition of poor. Someone who is actually poor would not waste $50-$80 per month on cable because they would not have it to waste. Nor could they smoke, or not much, because they wouldn’t have $150-300 per month to waste on cigarettes. And so on. I can tell you from working at welfare in the past that someone with certain kinds of ongoing amenities has more income than they are telling you about, usually from a boyfriend or girlfriend, unreported job, or family help. Not that they are all cheats, they aren’t, and living on welfare is not some easy life, but cheating does happen.

    People who are in subsidized housing actually had more stability because they didn’t have to pay rent (or it was minimal) and wouldn’t get evicted unless they did something wrong whereas the working poor who pay rent or mortgages still could came in above the pitifully low welfare income limits and they would have no money for food because they had to pay their rent or risk becoming homeless.

    Aside from the welfare issue, seems like sometimes we are definining poor as “nothing left after they spend money on all the modern American conveniences.” No…poor means you don’t have money for those in the first place!! Or you can get them only intermittently.

    You want to see poor? Go to parts of Virginia and West Virginia in Appalachia, where they don’t even have toilets inside the house. THAT’S POOR!

    If someone is really hungry, seems to me they will cut off their cable and use that money for food. I certainly would do that, before I would ask for help.

    I would call the not-exactly-actually-poor group perhaps “struggling” rather than poor.

  13. We have lived on the poor side of town most of our married lives with 4 kids and 2 fosters
    To be honest I would rather make sure my family keeps their heads above water first.
    Then we give to St Vincent dePaul Society within our parish to take care of our parishioners.
    There is also 2 homeless shelters that I have given linens, bookbags and supplies for their kids,
    and donations as I could.
    My guy has traveled all over the world and what we consider ‘poverty’ level in the US is so far above
    the tin huts of Chile, or the ghettos in Italy, in those cases the governments will not help them.
    While in the United States, the poor are sometimes ‘poor’ deliberately so the government will ‘take care of them’.
    I remember one single mother in my neighborhood saying she was not going to live like ‘this’ forever, she took a nursing course and moved out of the poor side of town with her child.
    She wanted better. But she dreamed of a better life first; many poor will not dream a dream about a better life.
    They want to literally grow up so they are paid by our taxes and on the side they sell drugs.
    This isn’t what our God intended us to be, He wanted us to give glory to Him by growing crops and feed the
    hungry, building homes to shelter families, work hard and be paid well to help those in need. But we shouldn’t
    be allowing people to stay on the poverty merry go round all their lives and never get off!

  14. I have worked with the poor for years, so I have something to speak about.

    I have worked hard for most of my life for money, except when I was raising four young children.

    I have not had air conditioning, I have not had cable TV. I have given money to people who are poor because they have made bad choices.

    And now I am a little angry at myself.

    One of those people gets want they want from people who feel sorry for him. He has a lot of property, but will not sell it because he doesn’t want the state to take it in recompense for all the state help he and his sibling have received over the years.

    Another, had a nice inheritance and used it up without planning for the future. Now she is in subsidized housing with food stamps, free every thing including medical care.

    And I, who saved and sacrificed, am paying for this and have to dip into my monies meant for my children because I do not receive enough in SS and pension to pay for what they get for free.

    Don’t want to be uncharitable, but I really question a system that allows this to happen.

    I do not know the answer, but it sure does not seem fair.

    1. Hi Ann,
      While I don’t know your circumstances that well, times may be rough for you but you can always take refuge in the Lord Who understands your pains and sufferings even at the hands of injustice, after all the Son of Man didn’t even have a place to rest His head. Sometimes He draws near to us by drawing us to suffer with Him.

      I hope the Lord helps you in your hard times, and that He rewards you very well for all of your charitableness in Heaven [even giving a drink of water to somebody in need or those least of His does not go unrewarded by the Lord].

      God bless,
      Steven Reyes

      1. Steven, thanks for your kind remarks. I really need to correct what sounds way too whiney. I am better off than most and am thankful every day for God’s blessings, which are more than I deserve.

        My point is that people can be so irresponsible and the rest have to pick up the pieces.

        1. We all carry the cross constructed of other people’s sins in some way, form, or shape. I assure you the financial cross you carry right now is not greater than the emotional crosses carried by the woman who squandered her inheritance or the man who gets what he wants because people feel sorry for him.

          Don’t be so angry. Your saving and sacrificing has made you a strong and disciplined person. You are able to walk freely, knowing that you are capable of making it in any circumstances in which you find yourself. Your children have a mother that they can be proud of, one who has a lifetime of accomplishments to show and who has passed on something far more valuable than money to her children because of it. Those two people you spoke about do not value themselves. They do not see their gifts or talents, do not know that they have anything worthwhile to offer to others. They are trapped in emotional prisons, and need your prayers. They do not believe that they are capable of doing anything, and are therefore terrified of everything.

  15. Mother Teresa herself pointed out to western countries the fact that there are different sorts and varieties of poverty. It is true that many countries have no safety net whatsoever and that Americans are on the whole experiencing a far better quality of life materially than in most places in the rest of the world. Throughout married life we have paid tuition and grad school debts. I, a wife and mother, have always worked and sought work wherever we have lived. Sometimes we have just scraped by and other times we have had surplus. We have always donated what we could, to parish, to the needy in our community, to religious orders working directly with those living in poverty, to international efforts in different parts of the world and in addition we volunteer our time in various ways as well. Even when we have little to spare though we still do what we can because we must. But even during those times when we are worried most about money and payments, still, we often feel unsupported and alone at parish level even when we try to be very involved and serving in different areas and outreaches, attend sacraments and whatever is offered, and this with respect to the difficulties of life apart from money worries. I expect that, since most everyone has worries, money, for plenty, and the other kinds, for most, this is a common experience. I often feel that what I need the very most, the grace of the sacraments available through experience of the transcendent in worship, or in encouragement in the form of sacraments faithfully offered and taught, or in just times for prayer with others, with all bringing together burdens whatever they might be, are somewhat overlooked or taken for granted in my immediate area. I have been blessed to discover spiritual friendships more remotely, through internet and through staying in touch with friends who may be far away but through friendship we can be encouraging to each other. I think programs and outreaches and all the rest are great at parish level, there are a lot of needs and it is great when people meet and connect on that basis, but still I feel a sense, from my own life and from discussions I have had with others (and not just Catholics) that there is this experience of need that we are still not able to fill through material helps or programming. I hope that the encouragement of priests who blog such as Msgr. Pope will continue and in turn encourage other priests, those in formation and those who are pastors to be aware of this. I am sure that it is not easy to have charge of two or three merged parishes, with all that entails, and be able to pastor or shepherd people spiritually and do all of the other important things that must be done.

  16. America is a rich nation, but we have setbacks and ailments which cause suffering. I have been made homeless as a child due to a hurricane, but because our nation is rich and because of my friends and family, I did not go without. It is actually a good experience to become poor and to do without those comforts which people take for granted. It reminds us that there are actually better, more spiritual and personal things available to us.

    However, we must always remember the needy – the victims of evil. We can be like lights to them and, though we may not be able to completely heal them, we can start the process with a little bit of care.

    Do you care? Take time to care. 🙂

  17. I would like to quickly add some insight. I was a poor child during the early 60’s. We did not have shelter, food, and other basic necessities. My siblings and I roamed the streets looking for laundromats where we could sleep for the night. This was in the United States .

    A new program became available and we began to receive government commodities as food. A very unquie experience. Canned meat w/ pictures of the various animals(pig, chicken, and maybe cows), the “meat” was jelled and smelled awful. …. we ate it.

    Eventually, social services became available and we received assistance. Later Food Stamps became available and we could eat food everyone else seemed to be eating. Of course, the stigma was horrific if one is a preteen and a cashier speaks into a store microphone and announces that she needs change for food stamps. We encountered many humiliating experiences receiving assistance. We heard people we did not know thought we were lazy and not paying our way.

    Others w/ similar experiences became shameful and learned quickly to keep this type of information secret.

    When school lunches became available, I was an adult and struggled to make sure my children did not need the lunch programs.

    Now, the schools provide breakfast and lunch.

    However, the stigma is still there and children still feel like they are outside of the mainstream when another student learns the child is receiving a free lunch or breakfast.

    With this personal information and experience, I believe that I am qualified to speak on poverty in America.

    Therefore, I would like to say statistics are not very trustworthy. We do have very poor citizens in this country. Unless we put money into programs to assistance our less fortunate Americans, we will create breeding places for criminal activity, similar to the deep projects in SE DC. (as Msgr. Pope mentioned in the blog). To some degree, the data is correct is distinguishing the poor in this country and the poor in other countries. (my siblings and I lived in a border town in Mexico for a period and one sibling was literally dying of malunturion. Once, we were back in the United States, said sibling became healthy again and is currently thriving). However, the poor is West Virignia and inner cities are very poor.

    As Msgr Pope has suggested, the definition of poor is relative. Poor in spirit, poor in poverty for basic needs, poor in health, poor in love…..I guess we could go on, Poor is poor. It is my belief, and I believe the position of the church, to help the poor is correct…..there by the grace of God, go I…… As we help the poor with something they are lacking, I believe the poor help us w/ something we are lacking.

    I do pray that Americans can learn to love each other and assist the poor, the sick, the imprisoned as much as they love the accomplished, famous, and self sufficent among us.

  18. I was struck by the lack of insight displayed by the authors of the article. I react to statements like, “forty three percent of poor households own their own home” when in 2005, many of those households owned very large and unaffordable mortgages, not homes. I also react to measures of wealth as being indicated by the types of electronic gadgets or appliances that happen to be in the home the person is renting or unsuccessfully attempting to purchase. A more useful question might have been how often are you able to run the air conditioning or pay for that cable television or cell phone without going hungry? The fact is, in 2005, most people “owned” much that they really could not afford which we now see has been taken from them. The large corporations want people to buy their products and the government to “create” the money for them to do so but are unwilling to hire them at a living wage. The downward spiral will only get worse and we should soon see in this country not only large scale strikes, like that against Verizon, but strong political demonstrations as is now occurring in the many countries newly inpoverished by greed (as has occurred in a similar fashion in this country). Whole countries including many in the Middle East, Ireland, Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal, and now England are now demanding justice and democratic rule in the face of looming poverty. As one commentator on Democracy Now stated, what is happening in England is the awareness by those with opportunity that they have it and others don’t, and the awareness of lacking it by those without opportunity. Essentially a sense of hopelessness is developing among the middle class. A feudal system is emerging in which those without opportunity could be doomed to a life of service to those with opportunity. Our US Democracy, at least on paper, assures that everyone has opportunity and is a main reason for our political and philosophical supremacy (not to mention everyone’s desire to come here) but perhaps this form of Democracy is becoming a form of democracy-lite which assures opportunity for some but not all. God help our Congress and President, theirs is a large, evil, and formidable enemy.

    1. Not many people would call our government corrupt, but it is. There is very little difference between the two parties, both have agreed on the election laws which keep them in office and prevent third parties from forming. Politics is about money and access, not about the common good.

  19. I forgot to mention, when discussing those who receive welfare and other help provided by our taxes (no wealthy CEOs running the welfare agency so our taxes must be a better bet than giving to many corporations that claim to serve the poor), the line that distingushes those who are impoverished from those who are not (and thus those who are eligible to receive benefits) should be noted. Before we blame those who by virtue of mental problems, physical disability, or drug addiction or what have you we should recognize that, if not very impoverished, they are quite poor. The 2011 Federal poverty level for a family of four is $22,350 dollars a year. That means that for a family to qualify for assistance, they must earn less than $2,000 dollars a month. Yes, this is extravagant when compared to countries like Somalia, but rent in a Somalian hut is not likely to cost half of your earnings and people will not throw you in jail if you build a hut on a bare piece of ground somewhere as they might here. The point is that you cannot compare apples to oranges, the income in this country, even at poverly levels is insanely high when compared to poor countries but the cost of living here is insanely high compared to those countries as well. What ever happend to the Christian Charity taught us by Jesus and exemplified by many of our heroes like Saint Francis or Saint Benedict and the millions of monks and nuns who live under a vow of poverty. They would all be in tears right now listening to the meanness of the working poor and the middle class who claim to belong to the Universal Church.

  20. I certainly agree, having worked first hand, that the needs are great even if on the whole Americans enjoy a much higher standard of living than the poorest in the rest of the world. However, the idea that a vote will solve it and one can vote and be done with it all in good conscience is dangerous.

    When it comes to the holy Church, St. Francis and countless others worked individually, one to one, doing what they could in their own circle towards those in need and by their example others decided to do the same and be effective in their own lives. But to see in the Church first and foremost, or only, a utility to be used or engineered to carry out various material supports or political action really is an injustice, and tends to force us to see ourselves and one another in terms of what we can do for another, or for what we can get, and in terms of transaction, a limitation on our dignity and full value as human beings. St. Francis did what he did in the name of Christ and he viewed the most paramount needs of everyone in spiritual terms. If there is no Church, no vocations, no Eucharist, because the spiritual has been neglected, then the corporal works of mercy to feed the poorest, the sick and the suffering eventually dwindle or go by the wayside. One can already observe this.

    Feeding the poor in this country is necessary and there is no other way. At any given time each of us has a variety of material needs of differing types and present differently. The Church gives the gift of live in the spiritual work and enables each to go out and do what they must do according to their needs. I would not have been able to do half of the things I did or sacrifice what I have in my own life on behalf of the poorest, the homeless among us, had it not been for profound conversion realized in my self first off.

    One can already hear in the political debates, that values are often left off, or there is widespread incomprehension of the values which inform a democracy. The politicians will do what they are going to do but it will be difficult to persuade people who only regard themselves and others in purely material terms to do the right thing towards those in need. The Church traditionally has a credibility in the debate in that the contributions are framed according to the love with which God regards human beings but more and more the Church’s teachings and voice are being crowded out or shouted down or excluded in the public square.

  21. The aim of the Heritage Foundation is to eliminate all entitlements. The Gospel says feed the hungry and care for the sick. But the Conservatives can turn the scriptures upside down, interpret, reinterpret, and draw meanings that fit their agenda. Blah, Blah, Blah. They criticize legiimate biblical scholars, denigrate their work, and label one of the greatest schlars Nestorian and Modernist. But they they will produce their distorted ideas of who is poor and whether the government programs is the way to deal with poverty. I would love to see plrivate and Church charities replace food stamps, medicaid and medicare. Eviscerate Catholic social teaching to conform to the values of the Heritage Foundation and Ayn Rand’s view of the poor. I don’t think that the average Catholic layman is willing to accept that.

    1. I am not sure you are fair to conservatives in your assessment. Also, this Ayn Rand is surely the latest boogeyman, I had never heard of Rand before a couple months ago.

      All that said, I think we’d be a bit further along if we didn’t so easily fall into the us/them critique. I am interested in challenging Conservatives to better articulate their vision for a system that has more subsidiarity but I am not sure your tone helps to invite that discussion.

      Having lived and worked among the poor, I do find aspects of the Heritage report on target, there is some need to do a better job with triage in assessing how we best help the poor and inculcate better spending priorities.

      1. I know of Ayn Rand. She was a close friend of her devotee Alan Greenspan whose economic theories have severely crippled this country and he has publicly admitted he was wrong. I think Ayn Rand’s Aritotelian view of the world has caused enough damage. They miss the point that greed is an immoral human weakness. The idea that unchecked greed will somehow be balanced by social economic forces does not seem to appreciate (or perhaps understand) world history.

  22. I have been thinking over this Heritage Foundation report all week; it seems to me that this is a politically-motivated report that will be used to gut federal assistance to the poor in the coming budget debates. First, there is some truth in the report, but it is twisted in a way to imply that the poor have an easy life. Second, there are many indicators of poverty that simply are not mentioned, such as access to quality health care and education. Third, as the comments from people who have been poor on this blog indicate, most people who are poor want a way out of poverty. The Heritage Report does not even touch on this subject; this would be the proper focus for a valid research report on poverty. Finally, after reading through the Heritage Report, I read Robert Rector’s biography, which boasts of his previous research on immigration. That report, along with his subsequent media bookings, unraveled the immigration bill that Congress was considering. Now I am not saying that bill was a great piece of legislative genius, but I do know that our immigration policies are not working to the benefit of Americans or immigrants.

    Robert Rector is also critical of the Catholic Church in his report:
    In a campaign to promote higher welfare spending, Catholic Charities USA tells the public that the government-defined poor lack the basic material necessities of life:
    We speak of [the United States] being the land of plenty: a country with living standards so high that others wish to emulate our success. But for nearly 37 million Americans there is another story. What is life like in this other America? How can it be that millions of us lack the basic material necessities of life?[50]

    Perhaps Robert Rector really wants to improve federal poverty programs so that assistance goes to those in true need, and poor people have a way to get out of poverty. To be fair-minded, should not Rector will follow this up with a report on the wealthiest of Americans, examining the amenities which they enjoy?

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