Numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau revealed a sharp increase in the number of Americans living below the poverty line. The statistics show that one in six Americans, or 46 million people, are living below the poverty line.
While the stats are dramatic, it’s important to remember that living below the poverty line and the mental image of what it means to be poor are often not one and the same. The 1930s image of a hobo in dirty, tattered clothes rubbing his hands together over a barrel of burning trash isn’t the experience of today’s American poor.
Today’s American poor have television sets — that’s plural. Nearly 100 percent of American households — 99 percent — have at least one television set. They may not be wearing new clothes, or even clothes that fit, but thanks to a wealth of programs including government, church-sponsored and the big non-profits like Goodwill and the Salvation Army, the basic need for clothing is easily met in most places.
Food stamps, which average approximately $130 per week for a family of four, help keep the poor fed, along with several programs like Harvesters.
That isn’t to say that living below the poverty line isn’t a challenge filled with hardships that many in the middle class can’t even imagine. The poverty line is a pre-tax income of $23,550 for a family of four. That’s an awfully small amount to provide other necessities — like transportation to and from work; and shelter, but people are making it work.
The real tragedy in the latest numbers is that the equation to land in the middle class is fairly straight-forward: Graduate from high school. Don’t have children before graduating from high school, and don’t have children out of wedlock.
Two-family parents rarely find themselves living below the poverty line. In the rare cases in which that occurs, it’s often temporary and fleeting.
That’s another statistic missing in the Census numbers. Those who are poor, don’t always stay there.
While the poverty rate in the U.S. waivers between 10 percent and 15 percent for the last several decades, the numbers don’t take into consideration that people move in and out of poverty. According to annual statistics, more than half of Americans, or 58.9 percent, will spend at least one year living on less than the poverty line between the ages of 25 and 75.
The increase in the number of Americans living in poverty certainly isn’t good news, but it’s news that should be tempered with the knowledge that we have a wide social safety net to help those in need. Americans are the most generous people in the world, and American ingenuity often delivers those living below the poverty line into a better economic position.
While we hate that anyone lives in poverty, it’s comforting to know there are ways to avoid the situation, and that there are ways out of it for those who land there.