Poverty in America not only affects the millions of people who are deprived of the common necessities to live, but it also affects the idea of progression and hopefulness in this country. The more than 37 million people in America living in squalor, poverty, and hunger are not invisible. In an effort to bring attention to this national crisis, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) designated January as “Poverty in America Awareness Month.”
As Vincentians we see the impact of poverty and need on those that we serve every day. We know first-hand, what poverty and dependence look like and how they destroy lives, hopes, dreams, and aspirations. We pray and cry with children who are hungry and parents who have lost hope. It is what we are, it is what we do.
In spite of the seemingly limitless prosperity that many Americans enjoy, millions of others are going hungry, foregoing medical care, doing without winter coats and gloves, struggling to break free from poverty. Last year, 46.2 million Americans lived below the poverty line — $22,314 a year for a family of four — marking the fourth year in a row that poverty has increased. With 46.2 million residents, Poverty, USA, is the largest state in America.
Today, the unemployment rate stands at 8.6 percent and despite recent economic growth more than 43 million Americans -including 14.7 million children - live in poverty, the highest in the more than 50 years that the data has been tracked. Yet a recent Gallup poll found that only 5% of Americans believe poverty and homelessness are important problems for the country. So let’s look at some facts and make our own determination:
- Over 25% of the children in the US under the age of six live in poverty.
- The poverty rate among women climbed to 14.5 percent in 2010 from 13.9 percent in 2009, the highest in 17 years.
- As poverty surged last year to its highest level since 1993, median household income declined, leaving the typical American household earning less in inflation-adjusted dollars than it did in 1997.
- One out of every six Americans is now being served by at least one government anti-poverty program.
- Child homelessness in the United States is now 33 percent higher than it was back in 2007.
- More than 50 million Americans are now on Medicaid, the U.S. government health care program designed principally to help the poor.
- According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, 1.6 million American children "were living on the street, in homeless shelters or motels, or doubled up with other families last year".
- The percentage of children living in poverty in the United States increased from 16.9 percent in 2006 to nearly 22 percent in 2010.
- One out of every seven mortgages in the United States was either delinquent or in foreclosure during the first quarter of 2010.
- The number of children living in poverty in the U.S. has risen for four years in a row.
- There are 10 different U.S. states where at least one out of every four babies is born to a family living in poverty.
- 28% of all U.S. households have at least one member that is looking for a full-time job.
- According to the National Center for Children in Poverty 40.1% of all children that live in Atlanta are living in poverty.
- There are seven million children in the United States today that are not covered by health insurance at all.
- Today, one out of every seven Americans is on food stamps and one out of every four American children is on food stamps.
- It is being projected that approximately 50 percent of all U.S. children will be on food stamps at some point in their lives before they reach the age of 18.
- In 2010, 42 percent of all single mothers in the United States were on food stamps.
- More than 20 million U.S. children rely on school meal programs to keep from going hungry.
It is hard to fathom why, in a country so rich with resources, we continue to ignore the issue of poverty among Americans. There appears to be no courage among our political leadership (of either party) to address poverty and the issue of need among so many Americans. Many proposals to balance the budget place a disproportionate burden on the poor; cutting vital programs that would keep our children off of the streets and in school, keep families in their homes or fight hunger. Consequently, many Americans are being forced to make hard decisions between paying the rent, buying food, receiving health care or paying for utilities. These are impossible decisions that no one should have to make.
As we emerge from the holiday season, it is critical that we recommit to the fight against poverty and pursue a strong, sustained, and comprehensive response to help end hunger, homelessness and poverty in America. By defeating poverty, we will restore our failing economy and put our nation back on a path to prosperity.
The causes of poverty are complex - as are the solutions. Yet, there is much we can do, as individuals and as community groups, to work with other Americans to address the root causes of poverty. The first step to solving any problem is understanding it - educating ourselves and others about the true state of American poverty, its enormity, conditions and effects.
Here are three simple steps you can take to become informed and inform others about poverty in America. (Adopted from the USCCB ‘Poverty in America’ website).
Watch the local news. Read the newspapers. Look for stories about poverty in your community - and be aware of policies and programs in your area affecting poor and low-income families, including those related to affordable housing, access to health care, public transportation, and good quality education. The St. Vincent de Paul Atlanta Voice of the Poor Committee is a great place to get started.
After familiarizing yourself with the facts about poverty in the United States, share what you've learned with others - at home, school, work, church, or wherever else opportunities arise. Others in your community will benefit from your informed viewpoint. An honest, open dialogue is a good step toward addressing the problem.
Be aware of how you speak about the poor in America. Using derogatory terms when talking about low-income families or others experiencing poverty only serves to de-humanize the very real people struggling with economically difficult situations. And if you encounter someone else speaking in an insulting manner about people in poverty, use the information you've learned to share your understanding and compassion.
If you are a parent, talk to your children about poverty in America, about its causes and what we as individuals and as a nation should and can do to help those in need find permanent solutions to the problem.
SHARE KNOWLEDGE AND UNDERSTANDING
As mentioned earlier, as Vincentians we have a unique perspective on the real-world issues of poverty, need, and dependence. It is critical that we share that knowledge and understanding with others. We are always available to local organizations like the PTA, community or service groups, church congregation or professional association to talk about the issue. Contact the St. Vincent de Paul Atlanta main office and arrange for a speaker to come and present. Also, consider inviting a representative from a local anti-poverty organization to speak to talk about what's being done to combat poverty in your area.
We can only make a difference when we take action.
“You may never know what results come of your action, but if you do nothing there will be no result. ~ Gandhi