US Catholic Faith in Real Life

What does modern poverty look like in the United States?

By Scott Alessi | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

Last week, Rep. Paul Ryan held another hearing on the status of poverty in America, entitled "Lessons from the Front lines." But when calling together a panel of experts from those front lines, it was apparently decided that people living in poverty themselves didn't need to be included--even though an advocacy group for low-income Americans reportedly tried to get some regular people who are hovering around the poverty line to have a voice in the discussion. 

We hear a lot from politicians and pundits about "the poor," both positive and negative, but there's really no better way to understand their situations than to talk to real people who are dealing with financial hardship. As part of its ongoing reporting on the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, National Public Radio this morning had an interesting look at the real lives of people living below the poverty line--of which there are 46.5 million, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data. The story took on an often repeated argument about people who are struggling to make ends meet, namely that they aren't really poor because they have things like televisions and phones. 

One of the subjects in the story was a 22-year-old single mom who earns $10 an hour as a cafeteria worker, and yes, she has a few material possessions. She has a car because it is the only way to get to work. She has a computer that she is using to take online college courses (obviously an attempt to improve her situation). And some of the other items, like the toys her son plays with, were gifts. She still lives in subsidized housing in a dangerous neighborhood--her next-door neighbor was recently arrested and charged with murder--and most of her paycheck goes to food, diapers, and gas. Does that sound like a plush, comfortable lifestyle?

Yes, poverty has changed, but so has the world around us. When I was growing up my family could never have afforded to buy a computer, so I had to turn in papers for school that were written on an old typewriter. But computers today are smaller, much cheaper, and widely available--plus they can be a gateway to education or additional income opportunities, making them a necessity for people who are trying to improve their lives, not a luxury. Not everyone can afford one, but you can own a computer and still be poor.

The homes of people in poverty might not look the way they once did--or, as we reported on last year, they might not even be in the same neighborhoods that we traditionally associate with poverty--but the stresses are still the same. Like the mom in the NPR story, many people live on the brink of collapse, worrying that one small financial setback will cause everything around them to crash. And if it does, owning a TV isn't going to keep you afloat.

Pope Francis reminds us often of the importance of not only serving the poor, but getting to know them. It is easy to cast people we don't know in a negative light and to find reasons to blame them for their situation. But talking to people who are struggling often reveals a surprising fact--they aren't all that much different from us, and many times we could have just as easily ended up in their shoes.

Having more than 46 million people in our nation living in poverty is unacceptable. But if we really want to reduce that number, perhaps the first step is to take the time to hear their stories.