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.
Wheeling, West Virginia
Technically, Linda Criswell steals her fruit.Skip to next paragraph
No one at King's Daughters Day Care, where she works, would begrudge her an orange or an apple, of course. This isn't that kind of workplace. When she grabs a piece of whatever the kids are having that day, she's welcome to it. But the simple staple is also something she can't buy on her own.
"I can't afford fresh fruit or low-fat meat. I can't get cauliflower or green peppers," she says. When she does buy food, "I buy things that stretch longer." She opts for whole roasted chickens that she spins into four or five meals. She can stretch a tomato, grown in her home garden, across an afternoon salad and an evening BLT sandwich. Until the first frosts come, and the plants die, that is. Then she waits until summer to eat tomatoes again.
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Ms. Criswell's stoic self-sufficiency isn't always enough to get her through. "I've eaten food that's seven, 10 days old." She gestures toward a reporter's notebook. "You can [write] that down."
Criswell works full time, with no benefits, and she hasn't had a raise in three years. After taxes, she brings home $1,030 a month – enough, if she's careful, to meet her expenses, with little wiggle room. "What I feel," she says, "is anxiety. I felt it just this morning. It's constantly in the back of my mind: 'Am I going to have enough to pay the bills?' "
Works full time; lives in poverty
Is Linda Criswell poor?
This turns out to be a very difficult question to answer. How you answer may depend as much on who you are – liberal or conservative, city-dweller or rural homesteader, low-wage laborer or salaried middle class – as on any single set of criteria. Even the government isn't sure how to think about the question: In some states, making $1,000 a month might qualify you for food stamps but could be too much income to qualify for Medicaid.
A presidential election year only makes the issue of the haves and have-nots more divisive. President Obama took heat for admonishing entrepreneurs that their businesses relied on tax-supported infrastructure and that "You didn't build that." Republican candidate Mitt Romney has been caught up in controversy over his statements at a fundraiser that nearly half of Americans don't pay income tax and "feel entitled" to government "handouts."
Americans know poverty exists and may agree on its broadest outlines, but when it gets down to the specifics, they often can't agree on exactly who "the poor" are.
Last month, the US Census Bureau released the latest official poverty figures, putting the number of poor people at 46.2 million, or 15 percent of the population. That's the same as the previous year – meaning the United States has sustained, for the second year in a row, the biggest increase in poverty since the government started keeping poverty records in 1969.
But what do these numbers tell us? And what are they used for? And what – and who – might they leave out?
The most obvious conclusion is that the nation is still dealing with consequences of the Great Recession. After the economic crisis, "of course poverty's going to go up," says Mark Rank, professor of social welfare at Washington University in St. Louis. "It didn't go up because people are working less or aren't working harder. It's that there aren't enough … decent-paying jobs out there."