Monday’s Mtg: Why Is Poverty Getting Worse in the United States?

Why does so much poverty persist in the richest country on earth?  Right now, 15% of Americans live below the traditional poverty line, or bit less if you use the government’s new measure of poverty that includes non-cash government benefits.  Here is the arc of poverty over the last 50 years (source).

Poverty rates CBPP chart showing both measures s1959-2012

As this guy points out, notice two things.

 “First, there was a huge fall in the poverty rate throughout the 1960s, and in particular after LBJ announced the War on Poverty in 1964 and followed up with Medicaid, Medicare, greater federal housing spending, and other programs to fight that war.  In 1964, the poverty rate was 19 percent. Ten years later, it was 11.2 percent, and it has not gone above 15.2 percent any year since then. Contrary to what you may have heard, the best evidence indicates that the War on Poverty made a real and lasting difference.  Second, since the permanent decline achieved during the 1960s, most of the variation in the poverty rate has been cyclical: it goes up in recessions and down during booms.”

BUT, look at the years since 2000 (click on chart to enlarge).  For the first time in our lifetimes, the poverty rate rose during a period of economic recovery (2002-07), even before it skyrocketed during the 2007-2011 catastrophic recession.  This is true even though government assistance programs took a big chunk out of that (red line rises less than  blue), exactly as they were designed to do in a deep recession.

Also, many people – including most of the public – think the official poverty level is way too low.  At any rate, at the least about 1 in 6-8 Americans lives in poverty at any given time.  Worse, severe poverty , those that live on less than 50% of the poverty level, has risen, too.

Why?  Why do we have the highest poverty level among in the industrialized world and why did it keep rising in the last decade in good times and bad?  What causes American poverty?  Do we know?  If we know, why don’t we do something about it?

On Monday, I’ll  open with a brief introduction on few of the reasons people usually cite as the main causes of these high rates.  Then, I’ll open it up.

Discussion Questions –  

  1. Who is poor in the United States?  Is the official poverty level too low or too high?
  2. What causes poverty?  What are the major structural factors?
  3. Are those factors getting better or worse or staying about the same?  Why did poverty not fall in 2003-07?

Links –

Facts About Poverty in America –

What Causes Poverty?

NEXT WEEK:    Did we have to drop the atomic bombs on Japan?


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