10 Common Misconceptions About the Poor


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Fifty years after president Johnson started a $20 trillion tax-payer funded war on poverty, we see little change in the poverty rates in America. A record breaking 47 million Americans rely on food stamps, and the poverty rate has held steady at around 15% for three consecutive years, which hasn’t happened since the 1960’s.

Nearly 50 million Americans live below the poverty line, which the federal government defined in 2012 as earning an annual income of $23,492 for a family of four. With the government and other groups spending billions and, in some cases, trillions of dollars to gain the upper hand in the war on poverty with little-to-no apparent success, Americans begin to wonder, “what is really going on?” or “can we really help them?”

To help answer these questions, and to illuminate some of the more elusive realities of poverty, we have developed this list to explore 10 of the most prevalent misconceptions about the poor in the United States. We will look at each misconception to determine the origins of the incorrect conclusions, and explore alternative explanations. Each misconception was selected due to its prevalence, its level of incorrectness, and its instrumentality in perpetuating biases against the poor.

Misconception 1: Poverty Doesn’t Exist in America

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Although this misconception is slowly dissolving due to education and ‘poverty’ becoming a hot topic in politics and in popular media circuits, a large number of Americans remain unconvinced that poverty exists. To those who know the realities of poverty and the severity of the problem in America, its probably mind boggling that this misconception is still a common-held belief.

Despite the overwhelming amount of evidence many make strong arguments that poverty actually doesn’t exist in America, or at least, that it doesn’t exist to the extent that many believe. This simple false belief acts as foundation for many other misconceptions we will see in this article, thus it is instrumental in perpetuating biases and misunderstanding about the poor.

This perpetuation of faulty thinking and the level of incorrectness make this misconception one of the most important on our list, and despite its prevalence it is also one of the easiest to debunk. Numbers don’t always imply facts, but in this case there are just far too many numbers speaking the same story for there to be any question about the existence of poverty in America.

In 2010 there were 46.2 million people in poverty after an increase in poverty rates from 14.3% in 2009 to 15.1%, meaning that nearly 1 out 6 Americans were in poverty–the highest recorded since the federal census started exploring national statistics in 1959. A 2013 UNICEF report ranks the US as having the second highest relative child poverty rates in the developed world, at just over 20%–that’s 1 in 5 American children living in poverty, which is one of the single greatest threats to a child’s well-being.

In this case, the numbers speak for themselves rather loudly. Poverty exists in America, in fact, it has a great hold on our country and is a great burden four our future generations.

Misconception 2: Poor People are Lazy

Misconception 2

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One of the most prevalent misconceptions about the poor in America is that they are poor because they are lazy. This misconception is extremely instrumental in the perpetuation of biases and stigmas against the poor.

Many people ignore the poor, justify their dislike of the poor, or view their poverty as deserved because they think that those in poverty could come into wealth if they just worked harder. This view, however, cannot account for the facts.

In 2008, 64% of those in poverty were unable to work due to being too young or too old, due to a disability of some kind, or because they simply could not find a job. In 2010, more than 10.6 million people in poverty were part of the “working poor” group, meaning that they were part of the labor force at least 27 weeks, and 2.6 million of them worked full-time and still remained under the poverty line.

Also, a large portion of the poverty population is constituted by the homeless, and in 2009 the NCH (National Coalition for the Homeless) reported that the homeless are often forced into such a situations: 50% of homeless women ran away from domestic violence, and over 67 thousand veterans were homeless due to physical or mental injuries from time in the service, and 40% of the homeless teen population is made up of homosexual or bisexual teens who had been run out of their homes.

Similarly, in 2010 4.1 million people aged 18-64 that lived below the poverty line reported having a disability of some kind. The underlying suggestion in all these statistics is that the homeless and those in poverty are in that state for a multitude of reasons that often have nothing to do with work ethic, laziness, or strength as a person.

Is this to say that there aren’t any lazy people in poverty? Of course not. There are lazy poor people just as there are lazy rich people, but when searching for causes of poverty there are many factors to explore such as economic instability, cultural discrimination, physical or mental disability, or familial problems.

Is this to say there is always an excuse for being poor? Of course not. But there is ample evidence to conclude that laziness plays a limited role in poverty in comparison to the multitude of other relevant factors at play.

Misconception 3: Only a Relatively Small Amount of People Deal with Poverty

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A common misconception about the poor is that they are some clearly defined group of under-performing individuals. When American’s see the percentage of the population living under the poverty line, they do not consider that while the percentage may stay the same over the years, the people that make up that percentage are constantly changing.

The simple truth is that a huge number of Americans move above or below the poverty line each year. In 2010 the Urban Institute reported that over half of Americans will live in poverty at some point before 65. This finding has huge explanatory power when it comes to dismantling misconceptions about the poor, because for those who wish to find something wrong with the poor they now have to find something wrong with over half of the people in our country.

Of course many of the people included in this statistic will only be in poverty for a small amount of time, however, it still makes us realize that poverty is a very real thing that all kinds of people experience, even if they are hard-working, well-educated, and have an all-star resume.

Misconception 4: All Children Have Equal Opportunities to Succeed

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Many people make the argument that even if a child is born into poverty, that child has the same opportunities in school as more wealthy children, and thus have at least some equal opportunity to succeed later in life. Unfortunately, the research demonstrates that the reality of the situation is quite the opposite.

22% of children who have lived in poverty do not graduate from high school, compared to 6% of children who have never lived in poverty, and shockingly 32% of children who spent more than half of their childhood in poverty do not graduate. These reduced rates of graduation in the poverty cannot be explained by any one factor, however, there are some clear problems with the environment a child in poverty is raised in.

Whether the child is malnourished when he or she goes into school will determine the level at which that child will perform in school. Often schools in high poverty areas employ teachers with less experience and fewer advanced degrees, while the opposite is true in areas with less poverty.

Whether the parents have mentally prepared their child to learn or are using school as a daycare, also determines if the child will be able to take advantage of the opportunities offered in school.

Recently, a study showed that a staggering 1.2 million children who attend public school experienced homelessness at some point throughout the year of 2012. So the simple rebuttal to this misconception is this: No, the numbers show that children in poverty do not have equal opportunities compared to children with wealthy backgrounds–they are not as healthy due to household deficiencies, they are exposed to same levels education, and often they are not prepared for such education in the first place.

Misconception 5: We Are Not Doing Enough to Help the Poor

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This is a touchy subject, and a highly debatable one. So far with this list we have explored situations where people have held negative misconceptions about the poor, but here we see an area of the debate where many people underestimate the positive things our country is doing for the poor.

We will not touch on the question of whether or not we are doing enough for the poor, because that is a larger debate outside the scope of this article, but I will show that there is often some serious misunderstandings and underestimations of what exactly is being done about poverty in America. For example, there is a viral video about the wealth inequality in America circulating the internet. It delivers a meaningful message, and motivates people to care about the wealth inequality in America.

Here’s the video:

Unfortunately, however, as many extreme advocates do, the creator of this video left out some very powerful points that serve to lessen the blow of the crazy statistics presented in the video.

The most simple and most powerful of these is that the poverty line is calculated before government assistance. So in cases such as this video where we see a huge statistic of people living on meager wages, our first reaction is think about how horrible and inhumane it is that people are living with such little amounts of money. What must be considered, however, is all the forms of government assistance that those groups of people are receiving–welfare, food stamps, and other methods of wealth redistribution, which in terms of monetized value, often doubles their living wages.

This simple misconception lies at the heart of major decisions in America’s highest leadership. For instance, in John Edward’s presidential campaign, he presented multiple ways to increase government assistance of the poor, but that wouldn’t actually reduce the number of those below the poverty line, so his proposed strategies were frowned upon.

There are multiple sides to this issue. Some wish to say that we should focus on reducing poverty rates, and some wish to say that we should focus on helping those in poverty. In either case, its necessary to understand exactly what is being done and what results are being achieved.

Misconception 6: Despite the High Levels of Poverty, No One Really Goes Hungry in America

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With the implementation of food stamps, and various other government assistance systems in America, many people that think that hunger is no longer an important problem. The assumption is that even in severe cases of poverty, families and individuals have the means through government assistance or charity to put some food on the table.

The saddening reality is that one in six Americans lives in a household that is “food insecure”, which means that in any given month they will be both out of money, out of food, and be forced to skip multiple meals. In 2011, 50 million Americans were food insecure, a 39 percent increase from 2007.

Among the 50 million Americans that went hungry in 2011, 17 million were children. Millions of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and when you’re in severe poverty, an unanticipated bill or random illness can mean that you won’t be able to eat.

Many advocacy groups fight the “No One Goes Hungry in America” misconception, because billions of dollars in charity come out of American’s pockets to support the impoverished and hungry in other countries. Of course it is important to fight hunger everywhere, not just in the United States, however, many people do not realize that so many millions of Americans are still going to bed hungry every night.

Misconception 7: Poverty Does Not Have a Lasting Effect on Children

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In our country, people often have a tough view of the less fortunate. In a capitalist society where the goal is to earn your worth, the presumption is that if you’re poor you didn’t earn enough or work hard enough. Especially older generations who are familiar with the great depression will speak of poverty as something to be overcome.

There is a difference, however, between country-wide poverty and wealth inequality. When the argument is made the children growing up in a poor family just need to work hard to escape it, they are missing the crucial component of poverty.

Poverty is nearly synonymous with risk. In 2012 the National Center of Family Homelessness reported that poverty is the single greatest threat to a child’s well-being. Children living in poverty are at an extremely high-risk for mental and physical disorders, due to lack of nutrition, physical stimulation, and/or emotional development. Poverty has been proven to be a leading contributor to a child’s social, emotional, and behavioral problems.

Unfortunately, the harsh reality is that, especially for children, poverty is an extremely difficult situation to overcome; and even if the children overcome it, they run the risk of being damaged by it for life.

Misconception 8: Even if You’re Poor in America its not THAT Bad

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Because America has a history of being one of the wealthiest and most developed countries in the world, people often think that even if you’re poor in America it can’t be that bad–not nearly as bad as it would be in other countries.

In fact, however, a ranking of 24 nations showed the United States ranking between 19th and 23rd in crucial areas of health, education, and material well-being. While we do have government assistance and charities for the poor, we simply do not guarantee quality of life for impoverished people at the level that other countries do.

Extremists have gone so far as to say that the poverty in the United States is equivalent of that of third-world nations. To give this perspective, in 2010 a record breaking 20.5 million people lived in “deep poverty,” which means living below 50% of the poverty line.

A family of four living in deep poverty would be making just $11,157 annually, and an adult living alone would be making $5,672 a year. That’s $929.75 a month for a four person family, and $472.67 for the adult living alone. That’s including all life expenses: clothing, school, gas, cars, car insurance, food, any medical bills, any unforeseen expense, cleaning supplies, rent, etc.

Considering that the average annual cost of living in America for an adult individual is $20,194, these numbers are disheartening to say the least. Of course, as was point out earlier, these numbers are BEFORE government assistance. Although even with assistance the situations are often dire and are well below the international standards.

So, as a short rebuttal to the “Its not THAT bad” misconception, its safe to say that it really can be THAT bad, and in fact, it can be about as bad as anywhere else in the world. America is simply not up to par when it comes to supporting its impoverished people, especially in the more serious cases.

Misconception 9: If You Live Above the Poverty Line You’re Doing Great

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With so much emphasis on the poverty line, and the struggles of those below it, people commonly think of living above the poverty line as living in the “green zone,” or living comfortably. This, however, is simply not the case.

Most two person households making $24,000 annually would struggle to make ends meet, not to mention the struggles of a four person household trying to live on that. Most people don’t understand that the Federal poverty line, and poverty itself are fairly different concepts.

Most people would consider a four person home operating on $24,000 annually a poor household, and yet its above the poverty line. Unfortunately, having a full-time job and working hard does not mean you won’t be in poverty, in fact, working full-time for minimum wage only makes $14,000 a year, which is only about 2,500 above the poverty line for a single adult.

A lifestyle based on a salary of $14,000 year means a non-existent disposable income. Rent, utilities, and groceries will probably account for most of it, not to mention any medical bills, unforeseen expenses, or random necessities.

This issue is interesting because it draws attention to one of the most profound misconceptions in America–poverty is not just life below the poverty line, its living under financial stress, where it is difficult to maintain quality of life, and this can be a problem whether your living responsibly below the poverty line or above it. And yet this issue is something we don’t draw much attention to. So many families living responsibly above the poverty line struggle, and yet we only think of poverty as existing below the number provided by the federal government.

Misconception 10: Taxpayer Funded Government Assistance Programs are Not Working

Miconception 10

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President Johnson devoted a $20 trillion dollar project to fight the war on poverty, and today billions of tax payers dollars still go to this war, and yet we see little benefit to all this hard work. In fact, rates of poverty and homeless are growing larger than ever.

This causes many Americans to come to the conclusion that our strategies are not working, that food stamps, welfare, and other intervention systems are not doing the trick. Ironically, it is this invalid conclusion that leads people to seek explanations such as the other misconceptions.

The truth, however, requires us to look more deeply into the numbers, which is a definite theme underlying the solution to many of the other misconceptions. As mentioned above, the census poverty figures are produced before taking into account government assistance apparatuses.

For instance, neither SNAP (sometimes referred to as food stamps) nor refundable tax credits are accounted for in the census poverty statistics. If they were, we would see that SNAP brought 3.9 million people above the poverty line in 2010, and that the tax credit lifted 5.4 million people above the poverty line.

Often it is the case that charity and government assistance programs are effective, however, the results are hard to see. In many cases these assistance programs may mean the difference between someone eating four times a week and them eating once a week. Unfortunately, these small but powerful successes won’t show up in the poverty census numbers.

So, could these programs be working better and achieving better results? Its debatable. But they are working, they are saving lives, and they are making a meaningful differences even if they’re hard to see.