Just How Bad is American Poverty?

“I was already It, whatever It was,” Jack London wrote in 1905, “and by aid of the books I discovered that It was a Socialist.” He continued, in his essay entitled “How I Became a Socialist,” by declaring:

Since that day I have opened many books, but no economic argument, no lucid demonstration of the logic and inevitableness of Socialism affects me as profoundly and convincingly as I was affected on the day when I first saw the walls of the Social Pit rise around me and felt myself slipping down, down, into the shambles at the bottom.[1]

Huge numbers of people fall into the pit of poverty, which can be very difficult to escape. It is certainly not a mere 15% of Americans or thereabouts, as the government’s outdated “poverty line” would have it (the threshold for a single person is $11,500 a year, as if someone making $12,000 isn’t poor). In reality, 48% of Americans live in poverty or near-poverty.[2] This is expected, as 40% of U.S. workers made under $15 an hour in 2015 and 50% of all jobs in the U.S. paid $34,000 annually or less in 2013.[3] Though it varies slightly by state, $34,000 is about $24,000 after taxes, or about $2,000 in take-home pay a month. If you make minimum wage, you earn just over $1,100 a month if working full-time. Meanwhile, the median cost of rent is about $1,000 and climbing.

56% of citizens have less than $1,000 in the bank, and one in three families have no savings at all.[4] Individuals making low wages must spend everything or nearly everything they make on groceries, electricity, water, rent, and gas or bus fare right away. If anything can be saved, it is often wiped out by the typical hurdles of life that better-off people consider mere annoyances, such as broken down cars or doctor’s visits. 77% of Americans say they are living paycheck to paycheck.[5] Millions have negative wealth due to loans, negative equity on homes after the 2008 housing crash, and so on.[6] Even when the economy is doing well, millions remain unemployed.

The work of the poor is often unfulfilling, unpleasant, even humiliating or dangerous. Many work long hours — 65, 70, 75 or more a week — or multiple jobs to make ends meet, seeing their loved ones infrequently. While they work, their children attend inferior schools (school funding is based on property taxes), often experiencing low-quality teachers, crumbling facilities, overcrowded classes, and a lack of books, supplies, and physical and mental healthcare. “I want to be able to go to school and not have to worry about being bitten by mice, being knocked out by the gases, being cold in the rooms,” a Detroit student, Wisdom Morales, said in 2016. Poverty actually damages mental abilities and mental health in children and adults alike.

The life expectancy of the poor is over a decade shorter than the rich, due to worse health.[7] Factors include unhealthy food being most affordable, unhealthy air and environments, stress and depression, smoking, lack of healthcare, and so on. Many low-income people have to live in dilapidated apartments or houses infested with roaches, mice and feces, rot, and mold, sometimes without heating or air conditioning.[8] If you have a month where you can’t pay a utility bill, your water or electricity is immediately cut off. If you can’t pay rent, you are evicted.

Almost 50 million Americans rely on food stamps.[9] Even U.S. soldiers spend tens of millions worth of food stamps each year.[10] 65% of us will use welfare, help we must qualify for, at some point in our lives to get by.[11] There exists a population of 1.5 million households that live on $2 a day—Third World levels—due to unemployment, reduced hours, lack of knowledge concerning welfare programs, etc.[12] Some in these households sell themselves for sex, sell plasma, or sell scrap metal to survive.

Each year, 3.5 million people will experience homelessness at some point (while 18.5 million homes stand empty, waiting for citizens who can afford them). 23% are children; about 10% are veterans; over 40% are disabled; 20-25% suffer from mental illness; most homeless women are domestic abuse victims.[13] The homeless suffer humiliation, from being denied service at businesses due to appearance to cities criminalizing begging, loitering, and sleeping in public places or even private vehicles.[14] Benches and sidewalks are redesigned, at times with spikes, to drive away the homeless looking for rest.[15]

The percentage of workers over 65 doubled since 1985, partly due to the elderly not having enough money to retire and Social Security payments being too dismal to live on.[16] What kind of society allows its elderly to live in poverty? Or its children? One in four U.S. children are food insecure, meaning missing meals or malnourished with cheap, unhealthy food – ketchup sandwiches, for instance.[17] Anastasia Basil remembered:

I’d come home from high school and there’d be nothing in the fridge but a bottle of red wine vinegar and a head of lettuce. On the counter, there’d be a bag of potatoes and a bottle of olive oil from the Dollar Store. That was dinner, potatoes and lettuce.

In the wealthiest nation on earth, children of the poor go to school with extremely painful rotting or impacted teeth.[18] Education activist Jonathon Kozol, in Savage Inequalities, wrote of the slums of East St. Louis:

As in New York City’s poorest neighborhoods, dental problems also plague the children here. Although dental problems don’t command the instant fears associated with low birth weight, fetal death or cholera, they do have the consequence of wearing down the stamina of children and defeating their ambitions. Bleeding gums, impacted teeth and rotting teeth are routine matters for the children I have interviewed in the South Bronx. Children get used to feeling constant pain. They go to sleep with it. They go to school with it.

Sometimes their teachers are alarmed and try to get them to a clinic. But it’s all so slow and heavily encumbered with red tape and waiting lists and missing, lost or canceled welfare cards, that dental care is often long delayed. Children live for months with pain that grown-ups would find unendurable. The gradual attrition of accepted pain erodes their energy and aspiration. I have seen children in New York with teeth that look like brownish, broken sticks. I have also seen teen-agers who were missing half their teeth. But, to me, most shocking is to see a child with an abscess that has been inflamed for weeks and that he has simply lived with and accepts as part of the routine of life. Many teachers in the urban schools have seen this. It is almost commonplace.

With low wages and no health insurance, seeing the dentist is a luxury.

Among advanced democracies, the U.S. has the highest rates of poverty, and is among the highest for infant mortality, among the lowest for life expectancy, living standards for the poorest among us, and wages (see A People’s History of Poverty in America, Pimpare).

“As for the unfortunates, the sick, and ailing, and old, and maimed, I must confess I hardly thought of them at all [early on],” London wrote. “My joyous individualism was dominated by the orthodox bourgeois ethics.” But he experienced economic hardship personally, and travelled throughout America and Canada listening to people “all wrenched and distorted and twisted out of shape by toil and hardship and accident, and cast adrift by their masters like so many old horses.” He continued:

And as I listened my brain began to work. The woman of the streets and the man of the gutter drew very close to me. I saw the picture of the Social Pit as vividly as though it were a concrete thing, and at the bottom of the Pit I saw them, myself above them, not far, and hanging on to the slippery wall by main strength and sweat… Just as I had been an individualist without knowing it, I was now a Socialist without knowing it… I had been reborn…




[1] “How I Became a Socialist,” Jack London

[2] Half of U.S. Poor or Low-IncomeCBS

[3] http://www.thenation.com/article/almost-half-of-all-american-workers-make-less-than-15-an-hour/; http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/29/opinion/sunday/why-cant-we-end-poverty-in-america.html?_r=4&pagewanted=all

[4] http://www.forbes.com/sites/maggiemcgrath/2016/01/06/63-of-americans-dont-have-enough-savings-to-cover-a-500-emergency/#2715e4857a0b19717426dde1

[5] http://socialistappeal.org/news-analysis/editorials/1112-qis-capitalism-dyingq.html

[6] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-08-01/new-york-fed-study-finds-15-of-u-s-households-have-no-wealth

[7] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/13/health/disparity-in-life-spans-of-the-rich-and-the-poor-is-growing.html

[8] http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/national/article76429037.html

[9] http://socialistappeal.org/news-analysis/editorials/1112-qis-capitalism-dyingq.html

[10] http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/37259-us-soldiers-are-relying-on-millions-of-dollars-in-food-stamps-to-survive

[11] A People’s History of Poverty in America, Pimpare

[12] http://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-surging-ranks-of-americas-ultrapoor/

[13] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bill-quigley/ten-facts-about-homelessn_b_5977946.html

[14] http://www.frontsteps.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/DiscriminationReport20141.pdf; http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bill-quigley/ten-facts-about-homelessn_b_5977946.html

[15] https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/06/how-cities-use-design-to-drive-homeless-people-away/373067/

[16] https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/personalfinance/retirement/2017/05/10/punching-past-65-older-worker-rate-highest-since-1962/101447336/

[17] http://abcnews.go.com/US/hunger_at_home/hunger-home-american-children-malnourished/story?id=14367230; https://thinkprogress.org/ketchup-sandwiches-and-other-things-stupid-poor-people-eat-41617483b497/

[18] http://www.cpr.org/news/story/tooth-decay-silent-epidemic-especially-poor-kids-colo; Savage Inequalities, Jonathon Kozol