Below the line: Poverty in America
Official figures say 46 million Americans live in poverty. Beyond that, there's little about poverty that Americans can agree on.
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Experts on both sides of the poverty debate agree that the formula isn't perfect, but it is a start for getting a more accurate handle on who has enough to live. And with that experimental formula, the poverty numbers go up, but not all that much – from 46.2 million to 49.1 million people, or from 15.2 percent of the population to 16 percent, according to last year's data. (The second SPM will be released in November.)Skip to next paragraph
So, is Linda Criswell poor? The government says no, because she makes "too much" money. Yet if she needs to go to the mall or the grocery store, she hitches rides with her 35-year-old daughter, to save gas. When her brother gives her a gift card to Big Lots, a discount store, for her birthday, she buys towels and toilet paper.
While other Americans watch the stock market, she watches the grain prices. Grain feeds livestock, and Criswell stretches meat across multiple meals. She's worried. "Grain is going up," she says. "I don't know how much longer I will be able to afford my roast chicken."
A full refrigerator makes a man rich
In Detroit, the poor aren't talking about grain prices. Still, Michigan's most famous city has poverty in common with West Virginia's dwindling northern panhandle. Both places are once-hearty industrial towns – cars in Detroit, steel in Wheeling – whose heydays seem to be behind them. There's one big difference, of course: The steel industry never merited a government bailout, like the auto industry in Detroit.
Then again, no one was bailing out James Harris, who lives near Palmer Park, not far from the Detroit border at 8 Mile. Mr. Harris is the father of five grown children; he is also a high school dropout, an ex-felon, and a recovering drug addict. He's been clean for 26 years, he says, and during the 10 years he spent in prison, he finally learned to read.
Harris, age 56, has been homeless, on and off, since his mother died when he was 13. He's been in and out of shelters, on and off the streets. Now, he lives with his wife, on income well below the poverty line. Her disability payments bring in $600 monthly; his volunteer work at a church and homeless outreach ministry brings in $260 plus a bus pass and food – and a sense of meaning. "This is my calling.... This is family," he says of the men he works with. "I would die for these [guys]."
He and his wife rent an apartment for $425 a month. They have a refrigerator, a color TV, and cable. They have a Nintendo Wii and a PlayStation 2 that, he says, is "outdated, but to me it's a luxury."
To some, the possessions suggest disposable income that seems incongruous with poverty. "When the average American hears 'poverty,' they are thinking about somebody who is homeless, or has an inadequate house with a hole in the roof or something, who doesn't have food to eat, can't put clothes on kids' backs," says Rector at Heritage. "If you drove down the street and found a normal house of a poor person, you wouldn't recognize it because you wouldn't think that's a poor person. It doesn't look poor."
Harris can understand that, because he also sees it work in reverse: "If I go to someone else's house and see their bills are paid, their refrigerator's full, the dogs and cats [are] running around, it's clean, the kids are sociable – [that's] 'rich' to me. We all have some poverty. Somebody's richer than us; somebody's poorer."
A majority of Americans are poor at least once
Harris is expressing the relativity of wealth, but some studies suggest Harris is also literally correct: We all have some poverty.