Hidden From View

Over the past few weeks, I have written about generational and situational poverty.  Whenwork-222768_640 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.

suburbsWith 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.

Suburban Poverty, Hidden on Tree-Lined Streets by Jennifer Swartvagher

The Secret Shame of Middle Class Americans by Neal Gabler

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.


Would You Eat That Cold?

canned soup2Tuesday my co-volunteer and I played “Would You Eat That Cold?” which is what we ask each other when we have to pack food for a homeless person who has no way of heating their food.  This week we also played the companion games, “Is This Too Heavy to Carry?” and ” How Long Do You Think This Can Last Unrefrigerated?” These companion games were necessary because the homeless gentleman we were assisting was without transportation and could only take what he could carry.  In addition, he lacked a refrigerator, cooler, or any other way to keep his food cold.  As games go, these are not a very fun.  This is the second time we have had to play them this month and at least the third time this year.  Each time we have played them, it has been with a different person.

Although this gentleman was new to me, he was not unfamiliar to my co-volunteer, who has been volunteering at the food pantry longer than I have.  This is the first time he has come to us homeless, however.  His experience tugged at our heartstrings.  He had been on the right path.  He attended college for three years, but left his education to care for his mother who was suffering from cancer.  As an only child, he was the only one she had.  He cared for her for a year and a half until she passed.  My co-volunteer characterized this man as an intelligent, engaging person, a caring father and loving son.  Unfortunately, in recent years he has been unable to find permanent employment and has chosen to trust people who have taken advantage of his generosity.  So now he finds himself homeless.  We gave him what we could, making sure the box wasn’t too heavy, and sent him to get some help with shelter.  Hopefully he will find a better housing situation and we will see him back in a few weeks to get a more regular allotment of food.

The type poverty our homeless gentleman is experiencing is classified as situational homeless-man-free-picture-for-blogs-1[1]poverty, which is defined as a period of being poor caused by situational factors like job loss, illness, divorce or natural disaster.  While he may not have had many extras as a child and young adult, he did not live in poverty; however, due to situational factors like having to take care of his mother during her illness and current difficulty finding employment, he now finds himself homeless and living in poverty.  If he could receive the necessary temporary assistance and find a permanent full time job that paid a living wage, so that he could begin to build a financial cushion, the likelihood exists that he would lift himself out of poverty.

I have just started researching the various types of poverty, and by types of poverty I do not mean the stratifications, like deep poverty, about which I’ve previously written.  These different types of poverty speak to the circumstances surrounding why a person is experiencing poverty and the characteristics of his or her experience.  My research is focusing on two types of poverty–situational and generational.  I believe it is important to understand the characteristics of each type of poverty, because these characteristics should be used to inform any policy or program created to assist those experiencing poverty.  Additionally, understanding the differences in types of poverty, that there even are differences, brings the realization that policies and programs to address poverty and its causes can not be one size fits all.  In the next week or so I plan to write a post sharing what I have learned about these two common types of poverty.