Poverty: An Overview
Over half of all Americans will be
poor at some point in their lives.
Millions of people in the United States and billions around the world live
their entire lives with inadequate incomes, unable to develop their God-given
talents or even thrive at a minimal level. Great musicians never pick up an
instrument. Gifted teachers don’t finish high school. Wonderful writers can
barely read. Potential nurses, lawyers, chefs, business leaders, and mechanics
are caught in the trap of poverty and we are all the worse for it. In recent
decades it has become harder, not easier, for a child in the United States to
rise above their parent’s socio-economic level, and upward mobility is less
common in the United States than in other major industrialized nations.
Around the world, nearly one
billion people are hungry. Some 40 percent of the world’s population,
approximately 2.6 billion people, lives on less than $2 per day. Nearly
9 million children die before their fifth birthday but, thankfully, that number
is declining. The
poverty of the global South exists in stark contrast to the wealth in the
global North and the abundance that God has blessed us with.
Poverty is not inevitable. In a
rich world and in this incredibly rich nation, the poor do not have to be with
us always. The eradication of poverty is possible.
We Can Eradicate Poverty
It is possible to greatly reduce
and even eliminate the affliction that is poverty. In the United States, there
have been two times since World War II when poverty declined dramatically.
Graph of the poverty rate,
1959-2010. Between 1959 and 1973, the poverty rate fell by half (from 22.4% to 11.1%) due
to low unemployment, rising wages at the bottom and middle of the income ladder
as well as at the top, and the War on Poverty.
But after 1973, the poverty rate rose and has never again attained such a low
Poverty fell again between 1993 and
2000 driven by low unemployment and rising wages for those at the bottom of the
income ladder as well as the top. Over just seven years, the poverty rate
declined sharply from 15.1% to 11.3%. The
declines were especially large for African Americans (from 33% living in
poverty in 1993 to 23% in 2000) and Hispanics (31% to 22%). After 2000, even
before the 2007 economic crisis hit, unemployment climbed, gains in national income
were increasingly captured by a small group at the top, and poverty rose. Since
then, more people have lost their jobs and wages in the lower rungs of the
economic ladder have fallen or stagnated. Poverty has risen. But if the U.S.
economy were to again experience low unemployment and rising wages in low-wage
jobs, poverty would undoubtedly fall once again. A concerted effort – to create
jobs, raise wages, and provide additional supports for those who need them –
can bring an end to poverty.
Even global poverty is not
inevitable. Some countries have had great improvements in their living
standards and social outcomes. Over the past 40 years, income per person rose
nine-fold in Botswana and over five-fold in Thailand and Malaysia.
These are still poor countries but they are making enormous progress in
overcoming poverty. Indonesia, South Korea and India have made remarkable
strides in raising income and/or other measures of human development such as
health and education. In developing regions worldwide,
the share of people living on less than $1.25 a day fell from 46% in 1990 (1.8
billion people) to 27% in 2005 (1.4 billion).
Rank, Mark and Thomas Hirschl, “The Likelihood of Poverty across the American
Adult Life Span,” in Social Work
Nations Development Program, Human
Development Report 2010, p. 42.
Nations Development Program, Human
Development Report 2010, pp. 25-43