Poverty in America, from Life in the USA: The Complete Guide for Immigrants and Americans

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Life in the USA
The American People
Social Classes

Poverty in America
This material courtesy of Jeannine Pitas

For most people in the world- including some in other developed countries- the US is the paragon of an affluent society, the proverbial Promised Land where millionaires abound and where even the lower classes are comfortable. This is the image commonly portrayed by Hollywood movies, in which every family lives in a suburban subdivision or plush apartment and owns at least one luxury car. On the superficial level, this picture appears accurate enough. After all, how many other countries have our gigantic supermarkets stocked with every imaginable delicacy from sushi to tahini, our superhighways crowded with every kind of vehicle, our whole communities of spacious, beautiful houses with perfectly manicured lawns? How many other countries have our tradition of social mobility and our treasure of rags-to-riches tales? Any way you look at it, our country is one of the most affluent in the world.

But, there is another image of the US that does not so often appear in Hollywood films. It is the image that shocked the world in the hellish aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It is the image that we see when we drive through the slums of any of our cities, the small, forgotten towns of our expansive countryside and many Native American reservations. No, it is not the poverty of Africa, nor that of Latin America, nor even of Eastern Europe. But this very lack of severity is precisely what makes it so hard to see… and so easy to ignore.

The truth is that poverty in the US may be on par with relative affluence in some other countries. In “Understanding Poverty in America,” an article published by the Heritage Foundation in 2004, Robert Rector and Kirk Johnson cite several figures regarding the people living under the national poverty line; according to their report, 46% of them own their homes; nearly 75% own a car; 76% have air conditioning (once considered a luxury even for the middle class), and 89% report having enough food to eat throughout the year (1). Thus, by current world standards, our poor really are well off.

On the other hand, given that our country is one of the most affluent in the world, the fact that poverty exists at all – and that there are some children who go to school hungry- begs a number of questions. Some commentators argue that most of the nation’s impoverished are poor because they want to be; if only they would work hard they easily could improve their lot. Meanwhile, others argue that there are many factors which lead to poverty: in some areas decent, living-wage earning jobs are scarce; companies fold or downsize and lay off their workers; physical and mental illnesses hold people back from working.

And, there is the ever-present racial divide. Last year the watchdog NGO Social Watch reported that at this time Hispanic Americans are more than twice as likely as non-Hispanic White Americans to be without health insurance; only 50% of African-American students graduated from high school in 2001 (2). Though these situations may be improving, poverty and the social problems that accompany it can still be found. But, since it is true that the poor most often own things- houses, cars and even DVD players- their situation becomes even easier to ignore.

In the wake of the high-tech boom of the 90’s, New York Times writer James Fallows used the term “invisible poor in the shadow of wealth” to describe the class differences in America. Focusing on the world of the high-tech companies that produced the seemingly overnight millionaires of the 90’s boom – a world that he temporarily inhabited while he worked on a project for a large software company - Fallows comments that, once entrenched in that intense realm of long work hours and ever-more lucrative prospects, it becomes easy to forget that an outside world even exists. He then muses on a cleaning staff member he regularly saw- a Russian immigrant who barely spoke English and seemed perpetually tired- and notes his own awkwardness, his discomfort at the reminder that there is a world outside the secure environment of a high-powered software company (3).

Many Americans live with the belief that our tradition of social mobility has made us a classless society. For the most part we all drive cars; we all wear jeans (whether someone’s jeans are bought in SoHo or at WalMart is not apparent at first glance); we all have televisions; and, most of us prefer to refer to ourselves as “middle class.” However, the fact remains that for some people, “middle class” means a newly built house in a gated community with two Mercedes in the driveway, while for others it may mean a small house in a slightly dangerous urban neighborhood with two mortgages to pay off and barely enough income to get by from week to week. While the overall sheen of our affluent society may keep class differences well-concealed, one need only explore the interior neighborhoods of any major city to see just how stratified the “middle class” really is. Poverty still persists, and as a country we still have our work cut out for us in determining just how to deal with it.

(1) “Understanding Poverty in America. Robert Rector and Kirk A. Johnson, Ph.D. Heritage Institute, January 5, 2004.
(2). United States Country Report. Social Watch, 2006.
(3). “The Invisible Poor in the Shadow of Wealth.” James Fallows. New York Times Magazine, March 19, 2000.


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