Over the past few weeks, I have written about generational and situational poverty. When I first started reading about these types of poverty, my assumption was that most people who lived in poverty as adults had grown up in poverty. In other words, that generational poverty was the most prevalent type of poverty in the United States. Historically this may have been the case and certainly in places like Appalachia, the deep South and many inner cities, people still suffer from generational poverty. Recent research, however, conducted independently by two professors, Stephen Pimpare currently at the University of New Hampshire and Mark Rank at Washington University, suggests that situational poverty is much more prevalent, and alarmingly, affects far more people than current Census Bureau poverty statistics reflect.
In a piece posted on TalkPoverty.Org, entitled Generational Poverty the Exception, Not the Rule, Pimpare contends that crippling generational poverty, although still in existence in the United States, is a much smaller percentage of the 15% of the population the Census Bureau considers poor. While Pimpare’s contention on the surface sounds promising, he goes on to suggest that even though generational poverty is the exception to the rule, poverty is far more common in today’s society than we might realize. His research shows that from 2009-2011 nearly one third of all Americans were poor at least once for more than 2 months. This number is more than twice the Census Bureau’s poverty rate. Pimpare’s piece additionally cites the research of Mark Rank, which shows that almost 40% of Americans between the ages of 25 to 60 will be poor at least one year during that span of time in their life. When poverty is examined using Pimpare’s and Rank’s research, the picture that emerges is a very troubling one. Far more Americans are touched by poverty than previously thought.
While more Americans’ lives are impacted by poverty, few of them will suffer chronic poverty that lasts for years. In an article for The Atlantic, Jordan Weissman, citing research conducted by Rank and colleagues Thomas Hirschl of Cornell and Kirk Foster of the University of South Carolina, state that only 11.6% of Americans between the ages 25 and 60 will experience poverty for 5 or more years. These numbers too sound promising, but the research also shows that many Americans slip in and out of poverty during these same years. This subset of the population may not be classified as poor, but their economic situation is certainly fragile. Since the beginning of the Great Recession, continuing through the sluggish recovery, economic insecurity for American households has climbed. Many Americans have experienced a stagnation in wages or the loss of a job coupled with prolonged unemployment. One in four Americans have no savings at all. They live a single crisis away from sliding into poverty that will be difficult from which to emerge.
With almost 40% of the population experiencing poverty for at least 1 year during the ages 25 to 60, the likelihood exists that most Americans know someone who has experienced poverty, or quite possibly have firsthand experience. The face of poverty today could very likely look like me or you. According to analysis of Census data done by the Brookings Institute, so far in the 21st century, more than two thirds of the increase in poverty rates have occurred in suburban households. In fact in 2013 suburban poverty levels exceeded urban areas. This dramatic rise in suburban poverty may surprise some, because unlike other types of poverty, suburban poverty is often hidden on tree-lined streets in developments that look just like mine.
I am not surprised suburban poverty exsists, but I am taken aback by how prevalent it is. I believe special attention needs to be given to addressing this problem, and not because the people experiencing suburban poverty look like me. To begin with, suburbs are ill equipped to handle large impoverished communities. Most governmental and philanthropic agencies offering poverty assistance are located in urban centers. Furthermore, those agencies that are located in suburbs are currently overwhelmed by the increase in demand for services. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, as a society we do not want large numbers of this subset of the population that dips in and out of poverty to slip permanently into poverty. To prevent that permanent downward spiral the factors that cause so many to subsist near the poverty level, like stagnant wages, the disappearance of white collar jobs and staggering levels of student debt must be addressed. In the meantime, societal safety net programs must be strengthened and eligibility requirements need to be overhauled.
What I have presented here is strictly an overview of this problem. I encourage you to read the articles I have linked to in this post. I have also been reading a book by Sasha Abramsky, entitled The American Way of Poverty, which endeavors to pick up where Michael Harrington left off with his groundbreaking work, The Other America. I have not quite finished Abramsky’s book, but in the last section of the book he offers numerous solutions to address many of the problems I have mentioned as well as others. As I read this section I am struck by both how simple many of these solutions would be to enact and how little if any cost would be involved in their enactment. Many of the solutions would be funded using money that is already being spent to address the end results of poverty, which is usually a more costly response than preventing the problem initially. Even if you do not read the book in its entirety, I encourage you to examine the last section.