All argument aside, millions of Americans struggle daily to make ends meet

The United States is one of the world’s richest, most powerful and technologically innovative countries; but neither its wealth nor its power nor its technology is being harnessed to address the situation in which 40 million people continue to live in poverty. – Phillip G. Alston

Some poverty scholars have contended that millions of Americans live on just a few dollars per day. Others report that such extreme deprivation is exceedingly rare in the U.S. Reliable information on this topic is crucial for understanding how we can combat poverty in the U.S.     – Caleb Seibert


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All the way back in 2014, I used these pages to highlight data from sources including the Oregon Center for Public Policy, Stanford University Center on Poverty and Inequality, and MIT Urban Studies and Planning Department, among others, which suggested that nearly one-half of Americans were economically insecure. In other words, in addition to the 46 million American people (or 15 percent of the population) that lived below the Federal poverty line at that time, another 100 million or so were one minor hardship from joining the “official” ranks of the poor themselves.

The researchers responsible for these statistics frequently point to the outdated and insufficient Orshanskly Poverty Thresholds tool that has been used to measure poverty in the United States since 1963. Among the issues with this tool is that it fails to account for geographical differences and neglects critical indicators including housing, health care, child care, utilities, and transportation costs.

As such, the 2018 poverty threshold for a family of four in America is a mere household income of $25,100, regardless of where they live.

The main gist of the research coming out of Stanford, MIT and other places was that both the reality and the threat of poverty were far worse than previously thought. As similar research studies followed, economist Tim Worstall took these claims to task, arguing that American’s true poverty rate was really closer to 4.5 percent.

This was in sharp contrast to the official poverty rate, not to mention claims that close to half of all Americans struggled to meet all their basic household needs on a daily basis. Worstall’s contention centered around the notion that “non-cash benefits” such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and other forms of public assistance “are not counted as income when calculating who is above or below the poverty line.”

So at the time, at least in Worstall’s mind, there were only around 15 million American citizens that were truly subject to poverty, an assertion that I find to be absurd.

Today, although the official number of poor Americans has declined to about 40 million, recent findings from the United Nations hold that nearly 19 million of those are in “deep poverty” and more than five million currently live in “extreme poverty”: conditions that are comparable to those in poverty throughout some of the poorest nations on earth.

Within a few weeks of the U.N. report – which was the focus of the previous installment of The Anti-Poverty Soldier – a team of economists led by Bruce D. Meyer employed the same rationale as Worstall did a few years ago, maintaining that certain in-kind transfers, other public benefits, and even unreported income show that only about 300,000 Americans actually live in conditions that could be classified as “extreme poverty.”

Once again, such a proclamation is preposterous to me.

Nonetheless, let’s put those mathematics aside for a minute. To anyone that is not intellectually dishonest or morally bankrupt, it should be obvious that poverty remains one of this America’s most glaring crises. At the end of the day, after the debate on how many people live in poverty versus deep poverty versus extreme poverty, one thing is crystal clear: Millions upon millions of people in this nation are struggling to make ends meet.

A recent survey by the Federal Reserve reveals that 46 percent of American adults don’t have $400 put away to pay for an emergency expense. In the previous column, I shared several examples of how the United States currently ranks at or near the bottom of most of the world’s developed countries regarding a number of social, economic, and health-related indicators. Among those I didn’t share last time are that:

  • The United States is 36th in the world relative to citizen access to safe drinking water and sanitation services.
  • The United States ranks 35th of 37 OECD (Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development) nations when it comes to poverty and inequality.
  • America’s youth poverty rate is nearly double the average of all other OECD nations.

If poverty were not such a big issue in this country, as some suggest, then how does one account for such a pitiful performance on the world stage? And let us not forget that, despite what critics might say, public assistance programs and other income benefits are vital in helping poor and low-income families access basic goods and services.

These benefits, however, don’t alleviate the systematic barriers, social and economic circumstances, and other factors that create and perpetuate poverty in the first place.

Confucius taught that “In a country well-governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of.” Of course, the shame does not belong to those who live in poverty, but rather to the country as a whole.

So then, what does that say about us, about America? And, what are we going to do (besides squabble) about it?


Clarence Hightower is the executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104