Helping the Poor, Part 1

“Sure, there are poor people overseas, but we have poor people right here in America. It’s more important that we help them first.”

“I want to live in the United States, where even the poor people are fat!” –Indian laborer

“The poor you will always have with you.” –Jesus

It’s common knowledge that we have poor people here in America. There are families without homes, elderly retirees having to choose between buy food or filling a prescription, and children going to bed hungry.

But just how many families are homeless? How common is it for senior citizens to be unable to afford their medications? What percentage of children lack enough food to eat? How big a problem do we have, and how does it compare with the rest of the world?

The U.S. Census Bureau just released its annual report on “Income and Poverty in the United States: 2014.” I found the overall content to be surprisingly interesting. It must be my nerd gene.

How does our government define poverty? Well, it’s complicated. For one thing, different agencies use different definitions (why am I not surprised). Then, it depends on how many people are in a family and how old the head of household is. For example, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, a single person under 65 with no children is living in poverty if their annual income falls under $12,316. If you have children, the numbers go up. So, for a family of two adults and two kids, the poverty line is drawn at $24,008. You can see the whole chart here.

How did they determine these particular numbers ? The Census website explains,

The official poverty thresholds do not vary geographically, but they are updated for inflation using Consumer Price Index (CPI-U). The official poverty definition uses money income before taxes and does not include capital gains or noncash benefits (such as public housing, Medicaid, and food stamps). (Italics mine.)

Since public assistance is not included in the family’s income, I wondered how much the government spends on various types of welfare. That’s complicated, as well. There are so many different programs, and most politicians would rather we don’t add up all the numbers, so much is obscured.

An article from the Cato Institute gave me some numbers I could use:

… this year the federal government will spend more than $668 billion on at least 126 different programs to fight poverty. And that does not even begin to count welfare spending by state and local governments, which adds $284 billion to that figure. In total, the United States spends nearly $1 trillion every year to fight poverty. That amounts to $20,610 for every poor person in America, or $61,830 per poor family of three.

Suffice to say, we have a lot of money allocated to helping the poor in America.

So, how much of our population is actually living in poverty? According to the census report, “In 2014, the official poverty rate was 14.8 percent. There were 46.7 million people in poverty.” However, “Chronic poverty over the 4-year period from 2009 to 2012 was relatively uncommon, with 2.7 percent of the population living in poverty all 48 months.”

In other words, a wage-earned gets laid off and the family struggles for a bit, but once the worker is employed again, they get back on their feet. It turns out that much poverty is temporary. Yet, there are still the 2.7% who are stuck below the poverty level. What is life like for them?

Stay tuned for Part 2 next week!

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