New data released in the U.S. Census, “Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2010” report revealed that in 2010, median household income decreased and the poverty rate increased, but the percentage of Americans without health insurance coverage was not statistically significant from 2009.
I. Key Findings from the Report.
- The official poverty rate in 2010 was 15.1% (up from 14.3% in 2009).
- This is the third consecutive annual increase in the poverty rate.
- This is the highest poverty rate since 1993.
- In 2010, 46.2 million people were in poverty (up from 43.6 million in 2009).
- This is the fourth consecutive annual increase in the number of people in poverty, and the largest number in the 52 years for which poverty estimates have been published.
- The poverty rate increased for non-Hispanic Whites, African Americans, and Hispanics, but was not statistically significant for Asians.
- The poverty rate increased for children under age 18 and people aged 18 to 64, but wasnot statistically different for people aged 65 and older (9.0 percent).
- Households in the Midwest, South and West experienced declines in real median income between 2009 and 2010.
II. Poverty Defined.
The U.S. Census Bureau uses a set of money income thresholds that vary by family size and composition to determine who is in poverty. If a family’s total income is less than the family’s threshold, then that family and every individual in it is considered in poverty.
The official poverty thresholds do not vary geographically, but they are updated annually for inflation with the Consumer Price Index (CPI-U). The official poverty definition uses money income before taxes and does not include capital gains or noncash benefits (such as public housing, Medicaid, and food stamps).
III. Consequences of Child Poverty.
Poverty is a complex issue and affects multiple dimensions of one’s life. Poverty directly affects a parent’s ability to provide for a child’s basic needs for shelter, food, water, and health care, but poverty also negatively impacts family dynamics and leads to increased likelihood of marital conflict, depression, and low self esteem. For these reasons, the impact of poverty on children must be examined from the perspective of adverse health, educational, developmental, and social outcomes.
Studies have consistently shown that childhood poverty has a substantial negative impact on academic achievement. For example, poverty has been linked to a greater likelihood that adolescents will drop out of high school, and children whose families transition from above poverty to “either being poor or on welfare have lower reading scores than children whose families were never poor.”
Researchers have proposed several theories to explain how poverty negatively affects cognitive development and educational achievements, including that poorer children are more likely to: (i) be raised by parents who’ve completed fewer years of schooling; (ii) grow up in homes that are less “cognitively stimulating;” and (iii) attend schools that “lack the resources and vigor of schools in more prosperous neighborhoods.” A 2009 study also revealed that chronic stress as a result of living in poverty actually weakens a child’s working memory. Finally, researchers have learned that poverty often results in poorer health and social behavior, both of which undermine cognitive development and educational achievement.
Recent studies have shown that poverty negatively impacts a child’s social and emotional development. For example, poorer children are at a greater risk of developing behavioral and emotional problems, including disobedience, impulsiveness, and difficulty working with peers, and children in poverty typically display fewer positive behaviors (e.g., compliance, obedience, etc.) than children from non-impoverished families. Studies have also linked family poverty with a higher risk of teen pregnancy, less positive peer relations, and lower self-esteem in children who live in poverty. Specifically, one study found that “long-term poverty is associated with children’s inner feelings of anxiety, unhappiness, and dependence, while current poverty is associated with acting out, disobedience and aggression.”
Possible explanations for the connection between poverty and decreased social and emotional development include that: (i) children who grow up in poverty are less likely to be exposed to positive social norms in their families and neighborhoods; (ii) impoverished parents more frequently use physical punishment to discipline their children, and may not respond as quickly to their child’s emotional needs; (iii) poorer children may not have “positive buffers” in their lives to help protect and shield them from negative influences; and (iv) poverty stricken families are more likely to relocate and have changes in family structure than more affluent families.
“National data indicate that poor health outcomes are more prevalent among poor children from birth onward.” Research has shown that a child who experiences poverty during the first three years of life is more likely to have a substandard nutrition status and decreased motor skills. Poverty has also been linked to: (i) low birth weight babies and an increased risk of death within the first months of life; (ii) an increased level of food insecurity (which includes not having enough food, eating a nutritionally inadequate diet, and having parents who are concerned about providing enough food and nutritionally sufficient food on a daily basis); (iii) an increased rate of injuries and accidents as compared to non-impoverished children; (iv) “aged-normed growth stunting” (low height-for-age) and “wasting” (low weight-for-age); (v) increased involvement in “risky behaviors,” such as smoking and early sexual activity; and (vi) an increased rate of chronic health problems, including obesity, asthma, and anemia.
Researchers have proposed that poverty causes negative health outcomes because impoverished children are more frequently exposed to health risk factors such as: environmental toxins, poor nutrition, trauma and abuse, divorce, violent crime, prenatal substance abuse, maternal depression, and low quality child care. Impoverished children are also more likely to live in sub-standard living conditions (often with lead-based paint), and in neighborhoods that are not safe and where there are fewer positive role models.
Studies have shown that children who grow up in persistent poverty are more likely to be poor as adults. “While upward mobility among adults who grew up poor is not uncommon, adults who experienced persistent childhood poverty are more likely to fall below the poverty line at least once later in life.”
IV. What Can You Do to End Poverty in the U.S.?
There are many ways to join the fight against poverty in the U.S. Below I’ve listed ten ideas from Change.org’s “movement to end poverty.”
- Recognize our shared humanity: We all have a part in ending poverty in America, so we must stop ignoring the problem and blaming the poor for their present circumstance.
- Educate Yourself! There are many intertwined issues that contribute to one becoming and/or staying poor, including lack of affordable housing, lack of access to good jobs, the public education crisis, rising college tuition costs, racial injustice (which can lead to housing and employment discrimination) and domestic violence. Poverty is a multifaceted issue, and therefore, we must take a multifaceted approach to eradicating poverty.
- Reframe the debate: Consider looking at poverty from an “economic human rights” perspective: due to a lack of money and resources, people also lack access to good jobs, secure housing, quality education, adequate nutrition and good health, and full participation in society.
- Speak Out! ”Stand Up and Speak Out” is an annual global action against worldwide poverty and inequality. We ought to be doing the same to eradicate poverty in the U.S.
- Join a campaign to end poverty: Support a campaign or organization that is fighting poverty in the U.S.
- Take legislative action: Most campaigns include a legislative advocacy component. Citizen-driven resources like GovTrack.us have search engines where you can research and track anti-poverty legislation.
- Volunteer: Get involved with an organization that is helping kids, families, the disabled, the homeless, women, the mentally ill, etc. Serve food at a shelter, teach literacy or job skills, counsel others, meet with prisoners, or lend a hand at an employment center.
- Donate: There are thousands of organizations that will gladly accept donations of money, toys, clothes, food, furniture, cars, etc.
- Support Efforts to Secure Workers Rights: Whether you’re Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, or something in between, we’re all entitled to a safe, healthy, and fair workplace, and we must work to ensure those rights are protected.
- Support Disaster Recovery Efforts: The United States has experienced unprecedented natural disasters in 2011. Your efforts to support NGOs (whether financially or by manual labor) will help to ensure the victims of natural disasters do not become impoverished while trying to rebuild their lives.