Special Report

Poverty in America

What it Means to Live in Poverty

Individuals and families in poverty regularly face serious immediate and long-term concerns, such as paying this month’s rent or heating bill, supporting a child’s education, affording health care and nutritious food, and more.

The most extreme and recognizable form of poverty is homelessness. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, more than half a million Americans lack permanent shelter. Many homeless individuals are in dire need of medical attention and suffer from mental illnesses. Homelessness carries health risks from exposure to weather and disease, it can lead to social isolation and self esteem issues, and it increases the risk of substance use disorders. A large share of the country’s homeless population are children. Children living in shelters face serious impediments to their development.

Though the most obvious form of poverty might be homelessness, there are tens of millions of Americans — many of whom have a job and a place to live — who experience serious problems associated with low incomes.

One of these is a lack of immediate access to food. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 13 million children — about one in six — in the United States live in families with inconsistent access to food. These children can experience hunger on a regular basis.

One of the clearest determinants of health is income, and people living in poverty are more likely to lead less healthy and shorter lives compared with affluent Americans. According to a recent MIT study, the poorest 1% of American men live, on average, nearly 15 years less than the richest 1% of men.

There are many reasons for this disparity in health outcomes. Americans in poverty tend to have less healthy diets, higher smoking rates, and higher stress levels. Americans in poverty also tend to have worse health outcomes because they are less likely to receive medical care. This is to a large extent due to lack of health insurance among low-income populations. People who live in poverty or near poverty represent the vast majority of those who lack health insurance, despite the existence of federal programs like Medicaid.

Low-income individuals are much more vulnerable to addiction. The opioid crisis has worsened in recent years. Since 2006, over half a million Americans have died from drug overdoses, and the vast majority of these have been in low-income areas.

Receiving a quality education is one of the surest ways to exit and stay out of poverty. Yet poor people are among the least likely to receive such an education. Public school systems are funded largely by local property tax dollars, which means people who live in lower-income neighborhoods are less likely to attend well-funded schools. According to the U.S. Department of Education, public school spending in high-income school districts is 15.6% higher than in low-income districts. Children in poverty also are less likely to be engaged in the classroom and more likely to have poorly educated parents, a factor which has been shown to curb development. About one in four adults living poverty do not have a high school diploma.

Even when children of poorer families have overcome these obstacles to obtaining a quality K-12 education, attending college remains elusive due to the high costs as needs-based scholarships are often insufficient. Just 4.8% of adults living in poverty have a bachelor’s degree.

The geographical grouping of poor Americans in low-income neighborhoods means that many poor Americans face amplified effects of poverty by living in highly poor places. An estimated 14.1% of Americans who live below the poverty line live in neighborhoods where more than 40% of households also live in poverty.

In addition to less well-funded public school systems, low-income neighborhoods also have lower-quality public infrastructure. They also tend to have high crime rates, which can have wide-reaching effects on all neighborhood residents, causing unhealthy stress levels and depression. Also, businesses are less likely to locate in poor neighborhoods and neighborhoods with high crime. This means residents are less likely to have access to amenities and less likely to find well-paying employment nearby.\

Click here to see what it means to live in poverty in charts.

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