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The Poor May Be “Always With Us,” But They Aren’t Always the Same Poor

Seth - December 20, 2006

Traditionally, we think of poverty as something persistent, unchangeable, hopeless, and enduring. And we tend to view “poor people” the same way. You hear stories on the radio about that guy on the street corner and you hear something incredibly depressing – he served in Vietnam, got a bit messed up, can’t hold down a job anywhere, lost his wife and kids to divorce, turned to drugs and alcohol, has been in and out of rehab centers and jail alternatively for the past 20 years… It goes on like this.

Or you hear about that single mother who has 4 kids, makes $7.00 an hour, and, due to little education, probably will for the rest of her life.

Or that Hispanic lady who cleans rooms at the local Holiday Inn, or the elderly gentleman in the apartment down the street who is currently living solely off his Social Security check. We have all heard of, or personally know, people like this.

Then we hear the national poverty statistics and are saddened to hear that more than 35 million of our fellow Americans are living below the poverty line – a group of people larger than the population of California. In the 90s the poverty rate was persistently about 12.7% of our national population, and it hasn’t fluctuated much. Our response is to either demand that government provide for these people on a long-term basis or to shake our heads with discouragement and change the subject to issues we feel are more manageable, or a little of both. We speak to the problems we can see.

But what is it we are “seeing?” And does it reflect the reality of American poverty?

According to an editorial by George B. Weathersby in the Christian Science Monitor last May, American policy makers and the American public have a largely mistaken view of the state of the American poor. While the “persistently poor” are among us, and often very visible, they make up a much smaller portion of the impoverished than you’d think. In fact, they aren’t really statistically representative at all.

The reality is that those 35 million Americans living below the poverty line are in a state of constant flux. People are falling below the poverty line all the time. But they are also rising above it just as often. An excerpt from the article:

The basic facts are that while millions of people enter poverty (primarily because of a loss of a job or a family breakup) each year, most people remain poor for less than 5 months, and millions of people reenter the labor force and earn enough to rise above poverty. For two-thirds of people in poverty the transition in and out of poverty is relatively quick. For others, especially single parents with small children and the elderly beyond the work force, poverty is persistent for a number of years.

The Panel for the Study of Income Dynamics has shown that the number of people who enter and leave poverty each year from the mid-1970s through the mid-1990s was about 8 million. Sometimes this number rose to nearly 20 million people entering and rising out of poverty in a single year. The description of a stable group of people who are poor, with a few becoming poor and a few rising out of poverty each year, is wildly wrong.

Two thirds! Two thirds of our impoverished are not “hopeless cases” and will likely be out of the woods in as little as a few months! The article continues:

Every five years during the past three decades, between 30 million and 40 million Americans have risen out of poverty. This is an enormous accomplishment for the individuals, their families, and the caring society that has supported them. Unfortunately, every five years during the past three decades almost as many people have entered poverty for one or more reasons. But unlike most other developed nations, poverty in America is a transitional process – from acceptable income levels into poverty and back to acceptable income again. Typically, this is a quick transition.

Of course, this still leaves a not insignificant one third of the impoverished in need of assistance on a much longer-term basis. But for decades (if not longer), we have been acting like that one third of “poor people” represents the entire population. Apparently, they don’t, and the entire premise guiding our public welfare programs and charitable donation campaigns may have been deeply misguided all along.

Weathersby concludes:

To accelerate the transition out of poverty, government agencies need to qualify applicants and deliver services within weeks of entering poverty or the public expenditures will be largely irrelevant. Long-term support issues of housing, training, and education may be important to the one-third chronically poor, but not to the two-thirds in transit through poverty.

The war on poverty needs to be fought on at least two fronts. First is the quick response, transactional battle of month to month for those at the edge of poverty to sustain or regain employment and family stability – supporting most of the people and most cost- effective support because it leverages their own substantial family and financial momentum. The second is the chronic poor, where there is a different strategy of long-term support and gradual transition.

This picture of American poverty as a dynamic and changing group makes a lot of sense to me. Speaking anecdotally from what I’ve seen as a bankruptcy attorney, and in my conversations with other members of the bankruptcy bar, very few of our clients are truly “hopeless cases” or even close to it. Usually they’ve simply run afoul of a few of the triggering events that Weathersby alludes to: divorce, job loss, bad investment, failed entrepreneurial ventures, heath crises, etc. If these folks can get through the stretch of rough weather they’re currently in, their prospects are actually not that bad.

How did we miss these people all these years?

Well, truth is, they’re darn near invisible. They aren’t begging on street corners, they aren’t in obviously lousy jobs, they aren’t checking in at the homeless shelter each night, and, to be blunt, they aren’t visibly identifiable as illegal immigrants. They don’t set off alarms with our preconceived prejudices. We aren’t programmed to be on the lookout for them.

Furthermore, they aren’t exactly bragging about being below the federal poverty guidelines. Most of my clients are deeply ashamed that their financial situation has gotten so bad that they need a bankruptcy. Once they’re through with it, they just want to move on and forget about it. They almost never become advocates for those who come after and find themselves in exactly the same situation.

Finally, poverty just isn’t as visible today as it was in the 1950s and earlier. Easy credit is almost universally available in America. Anyone can dress respectably, buy food, and put on the appearance of being “well-off.” Truth is, if you met a man making 15,000 per year, and fellow making 60,000 per year at your local supermarket, it’s quite likely that you’d hardly be able to tell the difference between them.

Most poverty in America is apparently truly inconspicuous, if not actively avoiding detection. Yet our preconceived notions of the beggar on the street and the welfare mom prevent us from seeking solutions for the impoverished right under our noses (they could easily be living next door to you). The crushing problems of the visible cases engender within us feelings of hopelessness or cynicism about poverty. Frustrated, we say “I can’t help these people!” Or “hordes of Cadillac-driving welfare mommas are out there today, cheating the system, and will be – FOR ETERNITY!” Over-dramatizing a problem makes it easier to give up on it.

Finally, I would draw your attention to the classic scene in “A Christmas Carol” where Scrooge, having just witnessed scenes of poverty in London, is presented with two horrible, dirty children dressed in rags.

“Spirit! Are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.
“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse! And bide the end!”

Beware most “this boy.” It’s high time we gave notice to the real problems surrounding us rather than the caricatures presented to us on the 10 o’clock news. Time we stopped being upset and anguished, and started being useful.


  1. As a church I think we have a very good system that addresses the very problems you bring up. When the system is working properly the H.T. or V.T. would know when a family or individual is in need. This is reported to the Bishop and thru the existing church welfare system the family or individual can be helped.

    As members we are also encouraged to have our food storage and a cash reserve for just such circumstances. By doing so we can hopefully stay off the “poverty rolls” which helps overall.

    Obviously the world runs differently than the church – too bad it does. An improvement of local, state and national programs to address the very points you bring out would certainly be beneficial….what should we do?

    One further comment, while driving to work yesterday one of the radio talk show hosts was addressing a different aspect of the poverty situation. He pointed out that since the war on poverty began in the 60s until now the percentage living in poverty has remained almost constant. The difference is those living in poverty now have bigger houses, almost all have at least one car, more than one TV and overall are at a much higher level of living than 40 years ago.

    Comment by Don Clifton — December 20, 2006 @ 11:26 am

  2. I imagine the bigger house is more due to predatory mortgage loans than it is to govt programs

    Comment by Seth R. — December 20, 2006 @ 4:09 pm

  3. I think this is a good point. There’s a big difference between having an income temporarily below the poverty line and “living in poverty.” I think I probably had a year where my income fell below the poverty line while I was getting my PhD, but to say I was “living in poverty” would be to trivialize the issue. Of course most of these people aren’t getting PhDs, but many of them can call on various resources (family, savings, friends, etc.) that alow them to get through a rough patch without serious hardship.

    That’s not to say that real poverty isn’t a problem. But if you look at statistics about what people actually manage to consume it looks a lot different than if you just look at income statistics.

    Comment by ed johnson — December 20, 2006 @ 8:02 pm

  4. Someone who loses a job or a source of income may have to end up using a credit card for needed items such as food and gas etc…they are already having trouble making ends meet but in that effort they have only enlarged the bills that need to be paid for the next months. So the cycle repeats itself until they can no longer pay on the bills or gain more income to cover expenses.

    This would lend itself to the revolving poor theory.

    Comment by Jared — December 20, 2006 @ 11:28 pm

  5. Jared, most seem to think that their ship will come in and things will work out financially if they can just weather this rough patch…

    As it turns out, they wait until their situation is as bad as it can possibly get, and then they finally call me, feeling they have no other choice. Once you’ve worked out the numbers and realized that, on your current income, you will never get ahead of the debt payments (the interest is simply too high), it’s time to file bankruptcy. Unfortunately, many wait long beyond that point.

    Comment by Seth R. — December 21, 2006 @ 11:01 am

  6. My first thought reading this was similar to Don Clifton’s. The Church’s succor to the poor seems mainly oriented to assist the temporarily poor, those you identify as the bulk of those in need.

    Your quote from Weathersby (“To accelerate the transition out of poverty, government agencies need to qualify applicants and deliver services within weeks of entering poverty or the public expenditures will be largely irrelevant.”) reminded me of my own unemployment experience three years ago. After losing my job, I applied for state unemployment insurance benefits. The benefit was pretty substantial, almost half of my lost pay. However, the state was experiencing recession, and because so many people were out of work, it took about four months to process my claim, at which point a lump sum of several thousand dollars was sent to me.

    Comment by John Mansfield — December 21, 2006 @ 2:05 pm

  7. I think the close fit of Church programs to the needs of the “temporarily poor” is probably due to the flexibility of the Church Welfare Program and its close local oversight by a Bishop who knows the people invloved better than any caseworker at the local county building ever will.

    Overall, I found the editorial very encouraging. It really seems to kill the misperception that our nation’s poverty problem is “unsolvable,” “hopeless,” or “overwhelming.”

    Comment by Seth R. — December 21, 2006 @ 5:12 pm

  8. (2) Wow a predatory mortgage loan. What a concept. Family victimized by mortgage loans.

    Well, in contrast, here is my theory. There isn’t much real poverty in the US. Given our social welfare systems, the strength of our economy and the near universal access to education most of our issues relate to self indulgence, greed, laziness, addiction etc. Here and there one can find a real probolem that is no longer fixable (but has its roots in the above) but poverty is a concept that is not very relavant in the US.

    Oh yes Seth it breaks my heart to hear about people who can’t pay their predatory mortgage.

    Comment by GeorgeD — December 23, 2006 @ 10:28 am

  9. Hi George. I imagined you’d be pretty busted up over it.

    Comment by Seth R. — December 23, 2006 @ 1:12 pm

  10. I’m interested to know what GeorgeD’s theory is based on other than the hatred he seems to hold for anyone that isn’t a middle-upper class Republican?

    Comment by jjohnsen — December 24, 2006 @ 5:40 am

  11. Wow the H word! It is so predictable coming from people who’s worldvirw is all victimization, oppression, class struggle and so on ad infinitum.

    Please be more original with your invective.

    Comment by GeorgeD — December 24, 2006 @ 12:35 pm

  12. Takes two to tango George.

    Yes, people tend to immediately slap labels on you. Probably unfairly.

    And yes, you do tend to deliberately provoke it with very strong statements.

    And once the labels start flying, you usually play the victim card and accuse the labelers of hypocrisy and intolerance.

    Then you get accused of trolling… and we’re off to the races again.

    I’m not saying you’re technically wrong or that the others are technically wrong. But I’d rather not repeat this little ritualized drama that you and your fans have going on. After watching the same predictable script about a dozen times on various parts of the bloggernacle, it’s gotten a tad stale.

    Comment by Seth R. — December 24, 2006 @ 1:53 pm

  13. http://shrinkwrapped.blogs.com/blog/2006/12/changing_a_mind_1.html#more

    Comment by GeorgeD — December 24, 2006 @ 2:35 pm

  14. When did I say I was the victim? You have claimed that I have taken that position so you can make a cheap rhetorical point. It is a low form of debate (characteritic of people who have been formed by the Left.)

    The problem is Seth that when you speak you want to hear an echo. That isn’t debate nor dialogue. The LDS blogosphere is full of people who are more formed by Leftism than they are by the gospel of Jesus Christ. His gospel is about forgiving others. He is the only Victim and he forgives all those who slay him with their sins if they only will acknowledge him. The problems of this life (and the next) are ALL curable by faith in his atoning sacrifice.

    Comment by GeorgeD — December 24, 2006 @ 2:41 pm

  15. There isn’t much real poverty in the US

    Reminds me of the comments made by the author of Eat the Rich and a number of other books that there isn’t any poverty in the United States, just hell on earth for some of the poor.

    P. J. O’Rourke had it right.

    Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) — December 24, 2006 @ 7:08 pm

  16. Actually George, I’m glad you showed up and made the point you did. You represent a not uncommon viewpoint. Many people feel as you do, and the debate is worth having.

    But you do have a knack for engaging people in a way that is perhaps not as constructive as it could be. For the record, I don’t care much. Your original remark here didn’t bother me in the least

    By the way. If you ever had the time or desire (and a suitably deranged state of mind) to look back over your various comments and my responses on FMH, Millenial Star, here, and wherever else, you’ll find that I have never (in my memory) accused you of hatred, bigotry, racism, sexism, or whatever else. Don’t lump me (and others) together with those who have been angered enough to say some of the things you mention.

    Again, your original remark was not framed in a way that invited much by way of response from me. But the viewpoint you represent is compelling to a great many people, and I would certainly like to have it discussed in a useful manner, if you, or anyone else is so inclined.

    Comment by Seth — December 24, 2006 @ 8:10 pm

  17. I am quite sympathetic to the ideas in this post.Perhaps it was just snark to speak about predatory mortgages but you are noted, Seth ,for your feelings about bankruptcy law and its’ affect on creditors.

    One of the problems I have with the “bloggernacle” is a whining undertone to all the discussion. I guess if there wasn’t such a tone there wouldn’t be much discussion. It would feel too much like SS and then what would be the point?

    Comment by GeorgeD — December 26, 2006 @ 7:27 pm

  18. Fair enough.

    I’m up front with my biases on debtor-creditor issues. But I should note that I’m still a new attorney and I’m not quite so jaded as a lot (by “lot” I wouldn’t venture more than half… but who knows?) of other members of the bankruptcy bar. They’ve been around long enough and seen enough abuses from the creditor industry that they’ve got a very cynical view of creditors generally. Many are of the opinion that if there is any legal way to screw the creditor, so much the better (this ties in well with the time-honored attorney obligation to represent the client’s interests above anyone else’s). They forget that the debtor does, in fact, OWE MONEY and has some moral obligations toward the creditor, no matter whether that creditor acts ethically or not.

    I’m not there yet, and hope never to be. But I do hold sympathy for those who find themselves on the wrong end of a massive imbalance of knowlege, resources and power. I feel that laws are meant to correct that imbalance.

    I guess that’s the social liberal position in a nutshell.

    The social conservative position, in a nutshell, I think was best expressed by Garrisson Keiler who called it the idea that “you can’t make people’s lives for them, and it’s almost always a disaster when you try.”

    Finding the truth in there is, of course, the heart of our political debate in America.

    Comment by Seth R. — December 27, 2006 @ 6:06 am

  19. There are evil and designing men in the world and informed people like you have an obligation to expose them and help the naive and unwary. But most of us naive and unwary are ensnared in their traps because of our greed and envy. If we focus on our problem the wicked and cunning will be stymied.

    Comment by GeorgeD — December 28, 2006 @ 7:54 am

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