Is American Poverty As Bad As We Think It Is?

A few years ago during the Great Recession, my mom would lament about how scary times were and how it was similar to the Great Depression.

Without a doubt, the Great Recession was hard on many families.

People lost jobs, and sometimes it took them months or even years to find a new one.  Some people lost their homes, and many others were underwater.  Still, to say that times were as hard as those during the Great Depression was a gross exaggeration.

Let’s Put American Poverty in Perspective

Poverty in the United States During the Great Depression

The site Ohio.gov has gathered stories from the elderly recounting their life during the Great Depression.  If you’re a history buff, you could spend hours reading the material.  By recounting their lives during that time, we get an excellent glimpse into how difficult times really were.

Margaret Vail states, “My father cut logs and built a ‘temporary’ cabin where we lived for nearly ten years.  It was 14 feet by 28 feet, and by the time my youngest sister was born there, it contained two adults and eight children.  Dad built hanging bunks from the four corners; the center great room was the cooking, eating, living and entertaining space.  We managed.  I remember the day we moved in, torrents of rain pointed out the unfinished holes in the roof.  The windows were still only grain sacks, and Mother and I scrambled for all the pots and kettles to catch the dripping water.”

Other stories discuss men waiting for the coal truck to steal some coal from it to provide heat for their families for the winter.  One woman discussed outgrowing her shoes.  Her mother’s solution was to cut out the front of the shoes so her toes could stick out.  Later, the sole came off the shoe, and her mother taped it together.

Are We Really Poor Now?

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As bad as poverty is in the U.S. we’re still far better off than in many other countries.

There is no doubt that there are poor among us who work at low paying jobs and struggle to put food on the table for their families.  But in other cases, those classified as poor are still much richer than people in the United States were just a few decades ago or than many in other countries are now.

In a 2011 essay, The Heritage Foundation acknowledged that according to the U.S Census Bureau, “over 30 million Americans were living in ‘poverty’.  In recent years, the Census has reported that one in seven Americans are poor.”

However, many of those defined as poor have enough food, adequate shelter, access to health care and amenities.

“While poor households were slightly less likely to have conveniences than the general population, most poor households had a wide range of amenities.  78 percent of poor households had air conditioning, 64 percent had cable or satellite TV, and 38 percent had a personal computer” (The Heritage Foundation).

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Even more surprising, “The home of the typical poor family was not overcrowded and was in good repair.  In fact, the typical poor American had more living space than the average European” (The Heritage Foundation).

While the poor may have more than we think of when we imagine how they live, a recent display by Peter Menzel emphasizes that even further.  Menzel took pictures of families posing with their groceries for a week.  I don’t know how he chose the families, but seemingly he was striving for the “typical” family to represent each country.  For instance, the American family of 4 poses with two open pizza boxes, as well as several other fast food meals, chips, pop, meat, and a small bit of fruits and vegetables.  Their food covers their table, counters, and hangs on the wall there is so much.

Certainly people from other countries eat more basics such as grains, breads, fruit and vegetables, than the Americans in the photo.  This was interesting, but even more striking was the picture of the family from Chad.  There are six members of the family, and all they had in front of them were two large bags of grains, one smaller bag of what looks to be beans, and several very small bags of other items.  I can’t imagine how that food feeds 6 people for a week.

We’re Richer Than Many & Have More Opportunities

I don’t want to simplify the poverty that exists in the United States.  It’s there.  Some kids only get their meals at school.  Other families are homeless.  That is true poverty, and it’s heartbreaking.

For many us of though, we feel poor when we compare ourselves to our neighbors who have more than we do.  We feel poor when we watch television shows that display unrealistic lifestyles.  (Friends, for example.)

But remember that in the history of the United States, we are living in one of the richest times.  We have more than many previous generations of Americans ever dreamed of having.  More importantly, even the poor among us are living a lifestyle that is better than many other citizens in other countries.

Finally

If you feel poor because you’re paying off debt or you have a low paying job, remember that you’re still far richer than many, many other people, and you live in a country that gives you the opportunity to change and improve your situation through education and employment.

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Published or updated July 15, 2013.

Comments

  1. Interesting points. I’d tend to agree, especially when you compare us to other countries. We’re generally much better off (even the poorest among us) than many in other countries. It’s a bit , but I do believe that the divide between the have’s and have-not’s in our country is growing more. It’ll be interesting what happens to the middle class over the near future.

    • Glen Craig says:

      It does seem to appear that the divide is growing and that what we consider ‘middle class’ doesn’t quite do for you what it once did. The future will be interesting indeed.

  2. Happiness decreases when people feel their lives are substantially worse than others who live near them.

    Scandinavian countries have a flatter distribution of wealth and their citizens feel happier than Americans who have wide gaps between the wealthiest and the poorest.

    So if a poor American compares himself to someone from Chad, he should feel great. But unfortunately, it’s human nature to compare ourselves to people making hundreds of times our annual income.

    I won’t argue that the American poor have it bad compared to many in the world. But is the amount of poverty we have reasonable given our country’s tremendous wealth? I worry that these kinds of studies only exist to justify the status quo, which stinks.

    • I definitely think we shouldn’t justify the status quo. However, generationally speaking, many of today’s poor are better off than earlier generations. Of course, there is always room for improvement, and in an ideal world, we wouldn’t have extreme poverty in this country.

  3. Many times people don’t realize just how good they have it. While it is definitely true that we have it better than those that came before us, we should. That shouldn’t be looked at as though it is us feeling entitled, our ancestors worked hard and we have better things because of it. Instead we should focus on how we are going to make sure we get even better and provide good opportunities for those who are here now.

  4. I agree with Billy.

    Be thankful for what you have. It could always be worse.

    I think one of our many problems is ignorance.
    Yes we have our share of poor and millions living pay check to paycheck. Yet I see many of these very people buying “red bull”, cigarettes, and lottery tickets regularly. They choose fast food restaurants daily, buy convenience dinners, and expensive gadgets.
    I think many of our poor are just regular folks with wasteful habits.

    I don’t have any issues with the wealthy. They earned it- it is theirs. I don’t support the “entitlement attitude of many in our country today”. You want it- work for it.

  5. This post says it all. I lived in a room in France for six months that I called “the coffin.” It was six or 8 feet wide and 12 feet long (maybe a little smaller) It was on the 5th floor of a building with no elevators and I had to share the restroom with 5 other people who I NEVER saw in six months! The wall was slanted and a I had a 1 foot by 1 foot window. I appreciate my home so much! We have so much more than people realize, but in order to know that we would have to travel or meet truly poor people. I am super grateful for all that i have.

  6. It’s a good idea to put that into perspective. In Romania, for example, the average wage is $440. The minimum wage $236. There are a lot of families here that only afford to eat margarine spread on bread slices for breakfast and dinner. The big majority of Romanians NEVER eat out. Most of the people don’t afford smartphones, big screen TVs, buying new clothes as often as they should, they don’t even afford to buy the medication for their health issues…

    In the end, poverty is probably subjective. If you were to take an American and have them live like a medium-wage earning Romanian, they would find it impossible to do so. But when you are used to earning a big income and with a specific standard of living, even a small decrease in earnings can make you feel like the poorest man on earth.

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