What it means to be poor
Al Jazeera asks: How do you define poverty?
On its surface, the United States appeared to be a land of prosperity in the early 1960s. The postwar manufacturing boom had lifted millions into unionized jobs — their ticket into the middle class — and industrial agriculture and new technologies had made food cheaper and more accessible. But as journalist Michael Harrington chronicled at the time in his book The Other America, all was not well.
Coal miners, factory workers, farmers and meatpackers from Appalachia to Chicago were losing their jobs to machines and to the country’s shift toward a service-based economy. These displaced laborers were among the nearly 1 in 5 Americans living in poverty in 1960.
Poverty was worst in “chronically depressed areas and industries” and among “blue-collar workers” and the “long-term jobless,” Harrington wrote. “Between 1958 and 1963, the unemployment rate averaged about 6 percent — low by today’s standards but high enough back then to shake the confidence of midcentury America. And most of those “out of work for better than half a year… were family men with dependent children,“ putting entire families at risk of destitution.
In an era of civil rights protests and social upheaval at home and abroad, Harrington’s book became an unexpected best-seller and helped incite a national debate about inequality and race. President John F. Kennedy, after witnessing extreme penury on a campaign trip to West Virginia, made poverty a key issue for his administration. Then, 50 years ago today, Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson used his State of the Union address to declare an “all-out war on human poverty and unemployment.”
As he explained in a corresponding plan submitted to Congress in January 1964:
Above: President Lyndon B. Johnson during a visit to poverty-stricken areas in Inez, Ky., in 1964. (Walter Bennett/Time & Life Pictures)
First, to enable every individual to build his earning power to full capacity
Second, to assure all citizens of decent living standards regardless of economic reverses or the vicissitudes of human life and health."
In this document, President Lyndon B. Johnson detailed his plans to combat poverty.
The resulting complex of anti-poverty and anti-discrimination legislation benefiting the poor and disenfranchised rivaled that of the 1930s’ New Deal. As policy, it became part of Johnson’s larger ambition “to build a great society, a place where the meaning of man’s life matches the marvels of man’s labor.“
The War on Poverty brought us Medicare and Medicaid, the food stamp program (now known as SNAP), Head Start preschool, federal student loans, job training and low-income housing initiatives. And by requiring states to comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in order to receive federal anti-poverty funds, the Johnson administration simultaneously tried to ensure that people of all races “have equal access to facilities open to the public“ and “be equally eligible for federal benefits,“ as promised in the president’s Jan. 8 speech.
Like other ambitious reforms, the War on Poverty has had a mixed legacy. Over the past five decades, Social Security and Medicare have successfully reduced the number of the aged poor, and food stamps have staved off hunger in millions of households. But support for these programs — and for New Deal–era welfare — has ebbed and flowed with political and ideological trends and economic conditions. Since the 1980s in particular, mistrust of large-scale government interventions has prevailed, often to the detriment of those most in need.
Today, 16 percent of the U.S. population — 49.7 million people, according to the supplemental poverty measure — live in poverty, compared to 35 million, or approximately 20 percent, in the 1960s. But the faces of the poor have changed. An analysis of Census Bureau data shows that African-Americans, Latinos, single-parent households and high-school graduates are now more likely to be officially poor. Even so, according to Columbia University research, the current poverty rate would be nearly twice as high were it not for War on Poverty initiatives like food stamps, unemployment insurance and Social Security.
The problems raised by Johnson 50 years ago — high poverty rates, long-term unemployment, lack of medical care and housing, racial discrimination and limited access to education and training — are just as urgent today. Yet, despite growing awareness of inequality, a policy consensus remains elusive.
According to the federal poverty level, a family or household is officially poor if it earns about:
|Yearly income||Size of household|
If you hit hard times, how would you survive at the federal poverty level?
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3. Or fill out the form at the end of this article.
Mouse over the data points and click on the color-coded key below the chart to explore the data.
Source: "Waging War on Poverty: Historical Trends in Poverty Using the Supplemental Poverty Measure" by Liana Fox, Irwin Garfinkel, Neeraj Kaushal, Jane Waldfogel and Christopher Wimer (December 2013)
Note: The graphic is based on the Census Bureau’s supplemental poverty measure, which is more accurate than the standard, official poverty measure. Graphs show percentages of Americans living in poverty, with and without the help of public initiatives (e.g., food stamps, cash assistance, housing subsidies, Social Security, unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation).
Mouse over the bars and click on the color-coded key below each chart to explore the data.
Population living in poverty, by race
Population living in poverty, by marital status
Population living in poverty, by education level
Source: Legacies of the War on Poverty by Martha J. Bailey, edited by Sheldon Danziger
Note: Graphs show percentages of Americans living in poverty, by year and demographic factor. These shifts are complex and reflect changes in immigration, family structure and the economy as much as anti-poverty policy. For example, divorce is now more socially acceptable, and a high school diploma is less valuable to job applicants than it used to be.
The Federal Poverty Level
A father supporting himself and two kids on a $27,000 annual salary is not officially poor. His household, far above the federal poverty level of about $19,500, does not show up in speeches about welfare kings and queens or in Census poverty figures. Depending where he and his children live, they may not qualify for food stamps, cash assistance, child care subsidies or public health insurance. They live paycheck to paycheck, working and poor.
The federal poverty level in 2014 is the same as it was in the 1960s, adjusted only for inflation and household size. It was originally meant to represent a baseline of survival, calculated at roughly three times the amount of money needed to feed a family. (See excerpt below.) A few years ago, the Census Bureau began publishing a supplemental poverty measure, which is more accurate than the official poverty guideline. Yet both standards now bear little relationship to a family’s actual expenses or qualify of life.
(Social Security Administration report, 1963)
"A crude criterion of income adequacy — that the low-cost food plan priced by the Department of Agriculture in January 1962 represents no more than one-third of total income — consigns about 71 percent of the mother-child families to low-income status. Even the use of the Department's economy plan, estimated to cost about 20 percent less than the low-cost plan, leaves at 61 percent the proportion of the mother-child families who must devote to food more than $1 out of $3 to get a nutritious diet."
In this report, economist Mollie Orshansky established a poverty standard that was later invoked in the War on Poverty.
Recognizing the inadequacy of official measurements, the Center for Women’s Welfare at the University of Washington has proposed a Self Sufficiency Standard that calculates “the amount of income necessary to meet basic needs, including housing, child care, food, health care, transportation and taxes,” without any private or public help. This standard also contemplates regional variation and children’s differential needs based on age group. Thus, while the federal poverty level for a family of three was $18,530 in 2011, a parent, preschooler and school-age child living together in Los Angeles County would have needed $64,480 to be self-sufficient.
If the Self Sufficiency Standard replaced the official poverty measure, millions more Americans would be identified as unable to meet their basic needs. But would it change how we respond to “poverty”?
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