Among U.S. households, 800,000 live on less than $2 a day per person, according to a 2012 study by University of Michigan’s National Poverty Center. Those households, including 1.4 million children, are living at or below the World Bank global benchmark for extreme poverty.
The metric used to gauge poverty in third world countries turns out to be a useful measurement in what is usually considered the wealthiest country in the history of the world. According to World Bank data, this ranks us close to Mauritania-Laos for total number of people living under $2 a day.
These figures include all cash income and food stamps (SNAP), although not all forms of in-kind government benefits are included in the initial number. In-kind benefits are provided by the federal government in the form of vouchers instead of cash.
About 20 percent of these households utilize some form of housing assistance and 66 percent have at least one child who is covered by public health insurance. This means that a huge number of people are still falling through the holes in the social safety net even when all forms of benefits are included.
It’s hard to understand how people live in such extreme poverty, as the authors of the study explain in their conclusion: “…it is unclear how households with no cash income—either from work, government programs, assets, friends, family members, or informal source—are getting by even if they do manage to claim some form of in-kind benefit.”
No one knows exactly what should or can be done about this problem. Something is very wrong when millions of people are living in such extreme poverty that the National Poverty Center, which has been studying poverty in America for years, can’t even understand how the people survive. Our country supposedly has a basic social safety net in place, but if millions are people are going totally uncovered by the system, then it is clearly not doing its job.
Contemporary political discourse is so focused on the “middle class” that Obama, a politician who got his start as a community organizer in the south side of Chicago, hasn’t made one speech about poverty during his time as president. The middle class is great and all, but clearly we are forgetting to address the millions living below that distinction.
Do these people just not know where to find help? The report was based on census data, so clearly they had some form of contact with the government. Has the welfare system not grown enough to keep up with the demand? Obviously, there has been a lot of talk about entitlement reform, but that is largely for Medicare and Social Security, which don’t necessarily impact the people in question.
The welfare reforms in the ‘90s may have had something to do with these statistics, since cash benefits were supposed to be replaced with more in-kind benefits. Maybe the process for in-kind benefits became too complicated for those in need to receive them.
Regardless of how these people have been left out of the system, we need to help them. It may be a tough sell in today’s political environment of sequester-driven spending cuts, but the government needs to increase the scope of its benefits to catch those who have been falling through the cracks.
We are grappling with serious spending issues, but I think most Americans can agree that we need to figure out a way to prevent millions of our fellow citizens from living in third-world levels of poverty.