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Chapter 1: Poverty and Welfare in the United States . ................ 7 Chapter 2: Is Poverty a Choice? . ................................................ 29 Chapter 3: Is Welfare Reform Necessary? .................................. 49 Chapter 4: Is Welfare Fraud a Significant Problem? .................. 67 Chapter 5: Should the US Provide a Universal Basic Income? .... 83 Series Glossary of Key Terms ................................................... 101 Further Reading . ..................................................................... 102 Internet Resources . ................................................................. 103 Chapter Notes .......................................................................... 104 Organizations to Contact . ....................................................... 108 Index ....................................................................................... 109 Author’s Biography and Credits . ............................................. 112 K E Y I C O N S T O L O O K F O R : Words to Understand: These words with their easy-to-understand definitions will increase the reader’s understanding of the text while building vocabulary skills. Sidebars: This boxed material within the main text allows readers to build knowledge, gain insights, explore possibilities, and broaden their perspectives by weaving together additional information to provide realistic and holistic perspectives. Educational videos: Readers can view videos by scanning our QR codes, providing them with additional educational content to supplement the text. Examples include news coverage, moments in history, speeches, iconic sports moments, and much more! Text-Dependent Questions: These questions send the reader back to the text for more careful attention to the evidence presented there. Research Projects: Readers are pointed toward areas of further inquiry connected to each chapter. Suggestions are provided for projects that encourage deeper research and analysis. Series Glossary of Key Terms: This back-of-the-book glossary contains terminology used throughout this series. Words found here increase the reader’s ability to read and comprehend higher-level books and articles in this field.


absolute poverty— a condition where the household income is below the necessary level to maintain basic living standards (food, shelter, or other necessities). Hoovervilles— shantytowns built by those who were unemployed or destitute during the Great Depression. relative poverty— a condition where household income is significantly below the average income of a community. A person living in relative poverty is poor when compared to others in the community, although they may be able to afford food, shelter, and other necessities. wealth inequality— unequal distribution of assets, including homes, vehicles, savings, investments, and businesses.



Like many other countries, the United States of America has a poverty problem. The term “poverty” is used to describe those who do not have much money or material goods when compared to others in society. Of course, many different ways to describe poverty exist, and many people do not nec- essarily experience poverty in the same way.

Individuals who live in absolute poverty are not able to afford the basic needs: food, shelter, clothing, and the like. Those who live in relative poverty can usually afford to pay something toward their basic needs, but can afford little beyond that. The United States utilizes social programs to assist individuals living in poverty. Social programs are geared toward reducing poverty, improving opportunities for those living with low incomes, and to provide health care and medical services to those who might not otherwise be able to afford them. These programs are often referred to by the term “welfare.” Examples include Temporary Assis- tance for Needy Families (TANF), which provides a month- ly stipend that poor families can use to pay for necessi- ties, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program


(SNAP, also called “food stamps”), which provides money that low-income people can use to buy healthy food. Other welfare programs provide housing subsidies, benefits for disabled people, and health care. Welfare programs typ- ically have eligibility requirements each recipient must meet. Requirements could be based on family size, income, or location. American social programs are funded by both the fed- eral government and individual state governments. States sometimes establish their own programs to cover any potential gaps in assistance. However, social programs in the United States are not enough to meet all the needs of America’s population. MEASURING POVERTY The United States measures poverty in several different ways. The US Census Bureau annually estimates the num- ber of those living in poverty based on a sampling of Amer- ican households. Keep in mind that the Census Bureau’s estimate does not include everybody. Individuals who are homeless, living in shelters, or incarcerated are not typ- ically covered in the Census Bureau’s estimate of house- holds. While terms like “poor,” “middle class” or “rich” are frequently used by Americans, the federal government does not use these designations. Instead, the government de- scribes people as living above or below the “poverty line” or “poverty level.” The Department of Health and Human


Contemporary Issues: Poverty and Welfare

Wealth inequality is a significant issue that impacts Americans across the country. While the wealth gap may differ from state to state, the issue is prevalent in every region.

Services (HHS) sets the federal poverty rate for households. In 2018, that figure is an annual income of $24,600 for a family of four living in the continental United States. (The poverty level is higher for those living in Alaska or Hawaii, because it is more expensive to live in those states.) To determine the poverty level for a larger family, add $4,320 for each additional person in the household.


Poverty and Welfare in the United States

The percentage of the total American population who live at or below the poverty level is known as the poverty rate. According to 2017 data, the current poverty rate in the United States is about 12.3 percent. 3 This means nearly 40 million Americans currently live in poverty. People from all walks of life experience poverty-like conditions at some point in their lives. For some, it might

Detroit is one of the nation’s poorest cities. It is a prime example of urban blight, with tens of thousands of abandoned homes and decaying buildings.


Contemporary Issues: Poverty and Welfare

be when they are in their early twenties and trying to start a career. For others, this can result from a tragedy in the household, such as the sudden death of a spouse or loss of a job or business. For still others, poverty is a lifelong issue. Individuals who live in poverty are exposed to a variety of other issues beyond not being able to afford necessities. These individuals face increased health risks and environ- mental risks. They also face lack of access to healthcare and as a result are more likely to become ill or experience disability. One study followed children living in poverty in the late 1960s and early 1970s into adulthood. Adults who had been poor in childhood completed two years less of school compared to other adults. They also tended to make less than half the salary of those who grew up wealthier. They

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Poverty and Welfare in the United States

were also nearly three times as likely to report they were in poor health. The men who grew up in poverty were two times as likely to have been arrested, and women who grew up in these circumstances were five times as likely to have had a child out of wedlock. “Most poor children achieve less, exhibit more problem behaviors, and are less healthy than children reared in more affluent families,” the study’s authors concluded. “Evidence suggests that early poverty has substantial detrimental effects on adult earnings and work hours.” 4 POVERTY AND WELFARE IN THE UNITED STATES Government-run social programs to address poverty did not exist on a large scale a hundred years ago. Until the 1930s, social programs tended to involve individuals, fami- lies, churches, and businesses, rather than the government. Many people sought help from family members and local institutions. During the 1880s and 1890s, individuals who needed financial assistance would move to “poor houses.” This was often done as a last resort. Residents were forced to work in harsh conditions in return for shelter. The facilities were bare-boned and cramped, and people slept in crowded, unsanitary conditions. In 1893, a severe economic depression began in the United States. In economics, a “depression” is an unusually long-term downturn in business activity. It is often accom- panied by a high rate of unemployment, as businesses close


Contemporary Issues: Poverty and Welfare

Unemployed men line up for free bread and soup during the Great Depression. Charitable groups created "soup kitchens" to help feed the poor in some American cities.

and people lose their jobs. The federal government tried to implement an unemployment program in 1893, but it was not successful, and the depression lasted for about four years. In 1929, the American stock market crashed and the United States was soon plunged into another depression. This one lasted throughout the 1930s, and today is known as the Great Depression. Countries all over the world were affected. Companies went out of business and banks failed.


Poverty and Welfare in the United States

Workers saw their wages fall, and farmers could not afford to maintain their property. In the Midwest, overcultivation and drought contributed to the Dust Bowl. At the peak of the Great Depression in 1933, nearly 25 percent of the US population was unemployed. During the Great Depression, Hoovervilles became a staple of life for many Americans. A Hooverville was the

A “Hooverville” at West and Charleton Streets in New York City, 1932. These shantytowns provided living space for those who could no longer afford homes.


Contemporary Issues: Poverty and Welfare

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