The history of US poverty - an explainer - NBC12 - WWBT - Richmond, VA News On Your Side

The history of US poverty - an explainer

(Source: Wikimedia Commons) (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

(RNN) – Poverty is the ever present problem that is often overlooked in the policies and promises of American politics.

The number of Americans who consider themselves impoverished increases and decreases with the economy, but overall, the number is growing. And as issues both foreign and domestic flare up requiring government attention, resources devoted to alleviating poverty historically have been among the first to be diverted.

Experts estimate that nearly 47 million Americans, or 14.3 percent, are impoverished, based on 2012 U.S Census Bureau data.

Poverty has been officially measured by the U.S. Census Bureau since 1964 and since then, reports on poverty levels have been issued each fall, reflecting the previous calendar year.

The Census Bureau measures two major points in considering poverty: the poverty threshold and the poverty guidelines.

According to 2012 measures of the poverty guidelines from the Department of Health and Human Services and set by the U.S. Census a single person making less than $11,484 and a family of three living on $17,916 or less is considered to be in poverty. Those numbers went unchanged from 2011.

The poverty guidelines are the same nationwide, but because of the administrative practices of the Department of Economic Opportunity between 1966-70, Alaska and Hawaii have different guidelines from the 48 contiguous states and the District of Columbia; the U.S. does not issue poverty guidelines for the U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam,

Several federal agencies use poverty guidelines for various federal aid programs based on need:

  • Department of Health and Human Services: Head Start; parts of Medicaid; AIDS Drug Assistance Programs; Children's Health Insurance Programs (CHIP); Family Planning Services; Job Opportunities for Low-income Individuals (JOLI).
  • Department of Agriculture: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), National School Lunch Program (free and reduced lunch for public school students).
  • Department of Energy: Weatherization Assistance for Low-Income Persons.
  • Department of Labor: Job Corps, National Farmworker Jobs Program, Senior Community Service Employment Program, Workforce Investment Act Youth Activities.
  • Department of the Treasury: Low-Income Taxpayer Clinics.
  • Corporation for National an Community Service: Foster Grandparent Program, Senior Companion Program.
  • Legal Services Corporation: Legal Services for the Poor.

These social safety nets and government assistance for people living in poverty began in 1965. With each additional one, each presidential administration has started unsuccessful initiatives to fight poverty. Nearly $13 trillion has been spent by the federal government since the inception of President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty," none of which have reduced the numbers in any instance for poor people, according to the New York Times.

The War on Poverty was based on the development of the poverty threshold, which was first created by statistician and economist Mollie Orshansky during her time at the Social Security Administration between 1963-64. It was first published in a Jan. 1965 edition of a Social Security bulletin.

Orshansky based her definition of the poverty threshold on an analysis of the economy food plan developed by the Department of Agriculture and the Household Food Consumption Survey of 1955. The report said that on average, a family of three used one-third of their after-tax income to purchase food.

The poverty threshold is calculated as the yearly amount of income a family used to purchase food and multiplied by three. Orshansky then took those thresholds and applied them to single-family households divided into groups based on the number of children in each family, families of farmers and non-farmers, the sex of the head of household and ages of the family members.

In all, there were 124 different poverty threshold averages, and thresholds were presented  as measures of "income inadequacy, not of income adequacy," according to Gordon M. Fisher's brief overview of U.S. poverty.

While these numbers have been changed because of inflation, according to NPR, Orshansky's method has gone unchanged since it was first used.

Orshansky was not even a fan of her own creation writing once, "The best that can be said of the measure is that at a time where it seemed useful, it was there."

The different facets and roles poverty plays in the daily lives of U.S. citizens is constructed by these numbers. Sequestration and October's partial government shutdown changed the lives of the impoverished dramatically, with many full-time and part-time employees not working because of forced furloughs, reduced hours and layoffs.

Poverty does not exclude those who are not working, and creates a class of citizens called the working poor. Simply defined as "people who worked, but nevertheless fell under the official definition of poverty," Americans who work jobs that have been furloughed or cut because of sequestration fall into this group.

In a study done by The Working Poor Families Project, U.S. Census data showed "the number of low-income working families in the United States increased to 10.4 million in 2011." The study also showed the number of people in low-income families "now stands at 47.5 million and could reach 50 million in the next few years."

The numbers add to a disparaging class system, where the middle class is disappearing rapidly and more than 100 million people - a third of the American population - struggle to live.

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