Below The Line

11 minute read
Barbara Kiviat


They are low-wage workers, single mothers, disabled veterans, the elderly, immigrants, marginalized factory workers, the severely mentally ill, the formerly incarcerated, the undereducated and the fallen middle class. They live in Appalachia and the inner city and the wealthiest suburbs.

(Watch TIME’s video “The New Poor of Fresno.”)

And they are growing in number. The poverty line is set at an annual income of $22,314 for a family of four. Last year, 46.2 million Americans lived below it, the most since the U.S. Census Bureau began keeping track in 1959. The current poverty rate of 15.1% matches brief peaks after recessions in the early 1980s and ’90s but otherwise hasn’t occurred since 1965.

It would be nice to think that this problem will disappear once the economy turns around. That almost certainly won’t happen. While the Great Recession and its double-digit unemployment have driven many families below the poverty line, the poverty rate has broadly been on the rise since 2000, which means that for years, it was growing along with the economy. That’s a historical anomaly and an indication that forces much deeper than the unemployment rate are at play.

What does it mean to be poor in the U.S.? Not always what you think. It can’t be measured solely by material deprivation: poor families might well own a car or subscribe to cable TV. That paradox stems in part from the inadequacy of using a single year of income to gauge poverty and not factoring in savings or expenses. A more realistic reckoning would account for a family’s ability to make ends meet–to pay the electricity bill and put food on the table–and the Census Bureau has been developing standards along those lines. But there’s also the fact that, the $22,314 line notwithstanding, poverty is often a relative phenomenon, with indicators less absolute than contextual. Lacking indoor plumbing didn’t signify poverty 150 years ago; today it does.

These nuances aren’t the only ones we tend to overlook about poverty. Below, the five most important myths–and how understanding them could help lead to solutions.


To grasp what it’s like to live in poverty in contemporary America, go to Baltimore–and then drive 25 miles (40 km) north to the suburban town of Edgewood (pop. 25,000), past the big stone welcome sign and purple wildflowers. At the Edgewood Boys & Girls Club, parents picking up their kids tell stories of skipping church to conserve gasoline, of scoring a pair of $8 back-to-school shoes at Goodwill, of having pancakes for dinner because the cupboards were otherwise bare and the next paycheck was still a day away.

The quintessential landscape of poverty may be the inner city or rural hollow, but for more than a decade, suburban poverty has been growing faster. From 2000 to 2010, the number of poor people in the suburbs of the nation’s 95 largest metropolitan areas grew by 53%, while the number in the cities themselves grew by 23%, according to an analysis of Census data by the Brookings Institution. Last year, one-third of the nation’s poor lived in suburbs–a greater share than in cities (28%), small metropolitan areas (21%) or rural communities (19%). The suburban poor now outnumber the urban poor in Chicago, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Houston, Oklahoma City and Detroit.

Why the shift? Some suburbs are losing jobs, leaving their residents poorer. Others are adding jobs but in low-wage industries like retail, attracting poor families from elsewhere. Affluent suburbanites are moving to city centers, while new immigrants are heading straight to the suburbs, where they’re faced with challenges like limited public transport and a lack of social safety nets. Resources for food assistance, job training, drug treatment, adult education, emergency housing and English-as-a-second-language classes are often sparser in suburbs unaccustomed to dealing with poverty and its web of related conditions. Health care for low-income families and the uninsured also lags, which is particularly troublesome since health problems both trigger and perpetuate poverty. Which leads to …


Jessica Jakubac, an edgewood parent, lost her last job because her son woke up one morning with an inflamed leg. Jakubac rushed him to a clinic and would have called her office to say she’d be late, except that she doesn’t have a home phone (too expensive) and her cell-phone service had recently been cut off because she couldn’t pay the bill. By the time she called from the doctor’s office later that day, she’d been logged as a no-show, which compounded the numerous late arrivals already on her record because of chronic trouble with her car: it needed a new battery, but she couldn’t afford one, so she often had to find a jump start first thing in the morning.

Living with a small financial margin isn’t just about not being able to afford things; it’s also about not being able to get things done. A few times a year, the United Way of Central Maryland runs a poverty simulator in which middle-class participants are given a set of tasks, along with situational constraints like relying on family for child care, taking the bus and depending on the money from a teenager’s after-school job. Some people grow so frustrated that they quit before the exercise is over.

Volatility also plays a major role in what might be called the chaos of poverty. Over the course of a year, 20% of families in the poorest fifth will see their incomes drop by at least half from one four-month period to the next, according to Urban Institute research. Poverty often goes hand in hand with shifting work schedules, child-care arrangements and transportation and living situations–all of which are taxing to manage and have a negative effect on children.


Moving to opportunity was one of the greatest antipoverty experiments in U.S. history. Authorized by Congress in 1992, the 15-year randomized trial gave 4,600 low-income families in poor neighborhoods a chance to move to less distressed areas. It reflected a popular belief about the poor: that the issues of concentrated poverty, especially in cities, are so entrenched and complex that removing people from their environment–away from bad schools, high crime, a lack of affordable quality housing, drug markets and the breakdown of informal social control–is the best way to set them on a path to a middle-class life.

The results were, to put it mildly, mixed. Families who moved to less poor neighborhoods generally saw improvements in mental health and feelings of safety but made few gains in income and employment. Kids did no better in school, and while girls tended to be better off socially, boys were more likely to show behavioral problems. One of the conclusions of Moving to Opportunity and similar programs has been that a neighborhood is largely the product of its residents’ social connections, and while the networks of poor communities may at times hinder escape from poverty, they also often provide a key source of support.

The current approach is to change neighborhoods from within. The highest-profile effort is Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City–a child-centric initiative that strives to reach a critical mass of neighborhood families through more than a dozen coordinated programs, from prenatal care to job training for teens and adults. A series of federal programs are now awarding competitive grants to coalitions of local organizations doing similar neighborhood-based work, including in rural areas and on a Cheyenne reservation.


It’s easy to frame poverty as an individual problem, but some of the highest-poverty pockets of the country are places that have been hit hardest by the collapse of decent-paying manufacturing jobs. To discount macroeconomic forces is to miss a big part of what drives U.S. poverty.

Since 1980, worker productivity has risen by 78% but full-time-worker pay, including fringe benefits, has grown by just half that. Less educated workers–those most prone to poverty–have fared the worst, according to MIT economist Frank Levy. Furthermore, while college-completion rates have grown substantially over the past generation, those gains are concentrated among richer families, as research by the University of Michigan’s Patrick Wightman and Sheldon Danziger illustrates. The increasing price of college is a factor, as is the fact that, for the poor, taking time off work to be a student is often not an option. But the education gap between kids from rich and poor families has not only been growing but starts even before kindergarten. A good school in every neighborhood is surely one of the most powerful antipoverty programs imaginable, but enriching preschool may need to be part of the equation too.


Imagine a policy that could cut the U.S. poverty rate in half. Turns out we already have one: it’s called Social Security. Between the late ’50s and mid-’70s, the poverty rate dropped from 22% to 11%, mostly because of a decrease in the destitute elderly. In 2010, just 9% of Americans 65 and older were poor, the lowest rate for any age group. Last year, the earned-income tax credit, which boosts the pay of low-wage workers, lifted 5.4 million people, including 3 million children, out of poverty. Economists Yonatan Ben-Shalom, Robert Moffitt and John Karl Scholz calculate that programs like cash assistance, food stamps and unemployment and disability insurance reduce the rate of poverty and near poverty by 14 percentage points a year.

Of course, solutions come in forms other than government safety nets. In Baltimore, Toemore Knight, who has been homeless, is now an electrician apprentice in a program run by the nonprofit Job Opportunities Task Force. Employers play a major role, both guiding the curriculum and providing paid on-the-job training, a “learn and earn” setup that acknowledges the infeasibility of asking cash-strapped people to front money for education. Crucially, the program also helps participants tackle other issues that reinforce poverty, like the difficulty of landing a job with a prison record and the expense of transportation. Through a partner program, Vehicles for Change, Knight is buying a used truck so that he can get to work.

Understanding what poverty is in reality–and not in myth–is crucial to any new effort to lift Americans out of it. Poverty is daunting in its complexity; it is geographically disperse, chaotic and tied to the dynamics of both a single neighborhood and the national economy. But it is surmountable. In practice, combatting it might mean opening health clinics in suburbs, restructuring college financial aid to let people enroll in just one class a semester (so it’s easier for them to hold down jobs) and using the earned-income tax credit to supplement the pay of all adult low-wage workers, not just those with children. It might mean developing programs to help the poor smooth their income as well as build assets and to bolster the positive social capital that already exists in poor neighborhoods. It means paying attention to the barriers poor people actually face, and not the ones richer classes assume they do.

It may also mean being prepared to think locally. The research outfit MDRC has spent decades evaluating dozens of antipoverty programs, and as its president, Gordon Berlin, says, “We’re seeing a growing body of evidence that the things that work tend to be small in scale.” Whether or not a particular approach is a success often has as much to do with watchful implementation as it does a brilliant theory of change.

That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be national funding or a national strategy. But the fact that there is no one archetype of the American poor means it’s difficult to create a blanket policy to help them. For some, the answer is a better-paying job. For others, it’s detox. For the elderly, for the disabled, for the unemployed, it’s good old-fashioned social insurance.

Whatever the solution, the ambitions of the people below the line are a crucial part of it. At the Edgewood Boys & Girls Club, Sabrina Root, a divorced dental assistant who serves part time in the Army Reserve and takes community-college classes, talks about her dream of finding a career that would enable her to earn enough money to take her son to Disney World. “But I don’t want people to feel sorry for me,” she says. “It’s not about where you come from, it’s about where you’re going.”

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