My Take: Five misconceptions about poverty in America
Bread for the World President David Beckmann explores five poverty myths.
September 23rd, 2011
12:29 PM ET

My Take: Five misconceptions about poverty in America

Editor's Note: Rev. David Beckmann is president of Bread for the World and the Alliance to End Hunger. He is the 2010 World Food Prize laureate.

By David Beckmann, Special to CNN

(CNN) - In the midst of a ballooning deficit, an unbalanced federal budget and the upcoming presidential election, Congress doesn’t need to be worried about poverty in America, right?


Poverty is an all-too-familiar struggle for many Americans, and they have a stake in how these issues play out over the next months.

I believe God is calling us to change the politics that render our friends, neighbors and co-workers hungry and poor. To do so, we have to first tackle some common misconceptions about poverty.

1. “Poverty doesn’t exist in the United States.”

Although poverty often appears less extreme in the United States than in other countries, it is nonetheless real. There are 46.2 million Americans living in poverty, according to data released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The poverty rate increased to 15.1% in 2010, from 14.3% in 2009. That's nearly one out of every six Americans — the highest rate since the Census began tracking poverty data in 1959.

Children and multicultural groups were hit hardest. The poverty rate increased for those under 18, from 20.7% in 2009 to 22% in 2010. Among Hispanics, the rate went to 26.6% in 2010 from 25.3% in 2009. And for African-Americans, the rate soared to 27.4% in 2010 from 25.8% in 2009.

2. “There is no such thing as extreme poverty in America.”

If you don’t believe poverty exists in this country, you’ll be hard-pressed to understand that there are people in America living in “deep poverty.”

Deep poverty means living below 50% of the poverty line, which would be an income of $11,157 for a family of four and $5,672 for a non-elderly person living alone.

Many think this level of poverty is exclusive to people living in developing countries, but the number of people in America living in extreme poverty has reached a record high: 20.5 million in 2010.

3. “If you live above the federal poverty line, you’re doing just fine.”

$23,000 a year is too little for most two-person households to live comfortably in America, let alone a family of four. Most people don’t understand that having a job doesn’t mean you’ve made it out of poverty.

In fact, working full-time at minimum wage earns you only $14,000 a year. But there are also millions of Americans living above the federal poverty line who are struggling to make ends meet.

Why is it so easy for us to overlook poverty in the United States? Because to a certain extent, it is being managed by federally funded safety-net programs that help families make ends meet when times are tough.

4. “These so-called safety-net programs cost American taxpayers money when we need to be focused on balancing our budget.”

Neither SNAP benefits (what used to be called food stamps) nor refundable tax credits such as the earned income tax credit is accounted for in the census poverty figures.

If these benefits were included, they would show that SNAP lifted 3.9 million people above the poverty line in 2010, and the tax credit lifted 5.4 million people above the poverty line in 2010.

Programs like these can mean the difference between getting by and going hungry.

For example, despite increases in poverty, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's recently released hunger data shows that the percentage of families struggling to put food on the table remained unchanged for the third consecutive year.

This means that nutrition programs such as SNAP and school meals are keeping hunger at bay.

5. “Fifty percent of all Americans do not pay taxes.”

This is a powerful point that some members of Congress like to argue, without providing any context.

By context, I mean that many Americans do not earn enough to pay taxes. For those who do, when payroll taxes are taken into account, really only about 15% of Americans did not pay taxes in 2010 (excluding Social Security recipients, who do not pay taxes on their Social Security benefits), and this still fails to account for state and local taxes.

Everyone pays taxes in some way or another.

At the end of the day, Matthew 25 teaches us that what we do unto the “least of these,” we do unto God.

It is clear that the needs of hungry and poor people are at the center of the congressional budget debates, whether we want to acknowledge them or not.

The Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction has until November 23 to identify $1.2 trillion in funds to reduce our nation’s deficit. We pray that the needs of hungry and poor people are at the center of their decisions.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • Food • Politics

soundoff (902 Responses)
  1. rlcommenter

    Yes the wealthy have ways of beating the system and we need to close loopholes (Like Google not paying taxes).. But the poor also have a culture of beating the system that the Libs are so naive about.. The current administration recruits people to collect benefits to make it appear it's needed... People don't have a chance of getting off the dole because it's too generous and to leave it would be foolish... Just work for cash off the books... Don't risk losing benefits.

    September 23, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • Reality

      It is always interesting to see what the directors/founders of "non-profits" pay themselves. For example, the Rev. Beckman president of the Bread for the World, the Bread for the World Insti-tute and the Alliance to End Hunger as per IRS Form 990 (www.guidestar.org) pulls in $263,802/yr. To say the least, he has not taken a vow of poverty. Please do not contribute to his groups. There are groups serving the poor with significantly lower overheads to include local, state and federal government agencies.______________________________________________________________

      September 23, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
  2. jay

    What they forget to mention is the ones that JUST (by a few dollars) miss being able to qualify for benefits so they struggle to feed themselves and/or their families.

    September 23, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • Sean

      They can start by not having families or at least limiting their brood to something more manageable.

      September 23, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
  3. dropleaf

    Compared to the majority (developing countries make a majority of the earth's population) poor in America is doing pretty well. If you call hungry in America, it consists of fast food and obesity. That's what's harming the poor. The poor in America have their own indoor bathroom. Their own toilet paper. They don't have to use one hand. They own aggressive dogs to protect them. The federal government supports them. It's supposed to be for the children, but poor adults find it handy and know how to work the system just fine. Their daughters will grow up and graduate from college to become social workers, while their sons will grow up behind bars. Both sons and daughters will have free health care for life.

    September 23, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • gayjesus

      At least they have toilet paper since they are probably the ones cooking your food when you go out to eat.

      What about rich people working the system?

      Which is a bigger problem, the poor working the system or the rich?

      September 23, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • Sean

      The poor.

      The rich will still be rich ether way. The poor stay poor because they work the system instead of using it to get off the gubment teet.

      September 23, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • af090391

      Take the plank out of your own eye before you worry about the speck in your brothers no? Bigger problem or not, both are problems, and both should be dealt with. Passing the blame to someone else because you subjectively feel its a bigger problem is rather irrational.

      September 23, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
  4. jdog

    the republictard tea party idiots will JUMP on ANY and EVERY misconception to pander to their emotionally immature base or reactionary ignorant nut-wigs, who NEVER could be bothered to open a book or seek out information away from what Fox propagandizes them to believe.....

    September 23, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
  5. af090391

    Points 1-3 go to show that poverty exists in America and that its bad, and then you go and show that the federal income line is incorrect. You then make an opinionated statement about whats too little for someone to live on, when of course it would be too little. Minimum wage is minimum, and really is only meant to support one person. Second, for a family of two, two people working for minimum wage make 28,000 dollars a year, a little higher than your 23,000 figure. Not great, but people can manage. Counterpoint: Kids don't count. If you have a kid, 99% of the time, that's your fault. Second counterpoint: there are of course exceptions, like the person who lost their job, or husband died ect. They are exceptions and really should be looked after.

    Lastly, point 5 is very correct. Most Americans do pay some form of tax, be it sales, licenses, ect. However, that still doesn't disprove that only about 50% of Americans actually supply the federal government with money to do things for those who don't. That's wrong. Why? Not because the poor shouldn't be helped, cause they should, but because the country is forced to help them. No one should be forced to do anything with what they worked for, unless it directly benefits them. If this country is so god fearing that your biblical anecdotes actually mean anything, make taxes fair, and let Americans decide who to help and who not to.....I think you'll find that Americans would forget about the poor in America, just like the majority forget about them around the rest of the world.

    September 23, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • Dean

      Your logic is seriously flawed regarding point 5. 50% of the population earns less than $35K/year. They pay, on average, $400/year in federal income tax. Some who don't pay are actually much better off, but know how to 'hide' their income. That's what is wrong. Consider that *everyone* pays the same tax rate on their first $17K, whether they make $17K or $200K. So, this is not 'unfair'. It is just that the more people earn, the more disposable income they have, and therefore the more they can afford to help support the disadvantaged. If society is not about the strong helping the weak, then exactly what is the point of society? After all, the strong can fend for themselves, right? What you demonstrate is the arrogance of the strong...

      September 23, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • gayjesus

      Yeah...we should do something to get rid of those pesky kids. Let them fend for themselves.

      Why do people feel that they should be able to choose exactly where their taxes are spent?

      Oh, and those other taxes that you talk about do go to the federal government to help pay for your sorry a$$ is some way or another I am sure.

      September 23, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • af090391

      So, because your have more disposable income, you should be taxed more? In that case, why don't we just cut income tax entirely, and tax whatever you buy a little more. That would be much more fair, and it would keep your silly,"The rich should pay exponentially more money (percent), because they are at the top of the linear range of incomes with respect to population as a whole." argument. And society had never been about big protecting little. Its about a trade of services that benefits each other. If you stop being beneficial, you should be cut off, at least from your history of society argument. Now if you made a better argument, maybe slightly illogical, but better nonetheless like its the christian thing to do, then we can talk.

      September 23, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
  6. Tina

    For those posting that taxes should not be increased on wealthy citizens (forcing us to help the poor), who do you think made those people wealthy? Unless they were born into that wealth, they made their money from other people working for them! If they are not paying a living wage, then I think they should be "forced" to pay more in taxes. It's my opinion that most folks who are doing well couldn't care less about their workers!

    September 23, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • af090391

      Not quite. They made they're money by providing a service, not by enslaving people. They provided jobs to people and maybe had those people pay a few centd an hour off their pay. By providing lots of jobs, those cents become a lot of money. Those workers can choose to move to a different job if they wish, but that's their choice. They are not, in fact, forced to work there, or force to work at all for that matter.

      Lastly, living wage is subjective. Half of minimum wage would be enough for someone in Africa to live off of, what makes Americans so special that they're living wage gets to include cars and houses? Or any other luxury?

      September 23, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • CoffeeClue

      Your opinion is very wrong and it stinks of communism. Many (most) rich people made many others wealthy in the process of becoming wealthy themselves. THey also took a lot of risk running their own businesses, while paying their employees no matter if they themselves made money or not. Becoming wealthy is not as easy as you make it sound to be.

      September 23, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
  7. gayjesus

    Hey...This Christian is actually sounding like a Christian and not some christian right nutjob. Glad to see Christians like this still exist. I thought maybe they had been snuffed out.

    September 23, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
    • Saboth

      That's what I was thinking. Usually they are cheering for the death penalty or clapping when someone without health insurance dies or booing gay rights or something. I'm really not sure what "Christian" means to those people. Going to church and saying prayers?

      September 23, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
  8. mangus

    I make $46k in Seattle and I'm struggling, course I eat out at high end restaurants too much and drink expensive beer

    September 23, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
  9. Franklin

    The statistics concerning the 50% not paying taxes is correct. If you pay payroll taxes and later, when you file, you get it all back, it also means you didn't pay any taxes. Kapish?

    September 23, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • gayjesus

      How does that have anything to do with so many poor people in our country that we have a high percentage of the population that don't make enough to pay income taxes. What about consumption tax, gas tax, taxes on utilities, and the myriad of other taxes that everyone pays?

      Also, how many people that made over $100K didn't have to pay any taxes because of massive deductions and tax credits? Those people don't make you more mad than poor people that don't make enough to pay income tax?

      September 23, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • Arielle

      I made 19k last year between 2 jobs, paid my taxes and received nothing back.. (paid a little actually) so.. who do you figure is getting everything back and thus not paying taxes? Just curious..

      September 23, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • Dean

      Do you even know what payroll taxes are? You don't file and 'get them back'. That is impossible. They are not considered taxable income *when you earn*, and therefore you don't get taxed for that income... and therefore can't file and 'get them back'. Geez – try to educate yourself before posting if you don't want to look like a complete ignoramus.

      September 23, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • Stephane

      Hello Franklin, Actually even if you get all of it back,I believe the government can invest the money you pay in taxes monthly, therefore the government is making money from profit or interest from the taxes you pay. So in the end they may give most of what you paid back, but they do keep whatever amount they made during the year. Please anyone, correct me if I am wrong as this is just my understanding of how things works. In some ways it is the same as the banking system.

      September 23, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • Erik

      Then I assume you don't think that Social Security and Medicare count as spending either?

      September 23, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • mikey_d

      I think he means that when you "file" for you SS and Medicare benefits later on in life you get back what you paid in. He does have a point, if you live long enough to collect.

      September 23, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
  10. RAY

    The defination of poverty is an arbitrary number picked out the air. I'd love to compare our poor to the poor of Mexico or Somalia? Why does their generousity stop at the border? Or skin color? We have the wealthiest country on earth, and most 'middle' class humans would trade spots with out poor in a heartbeat. Should we help the truely needy–yes, of course. But don't do it through the use of taxes and force us to do it. It is a vapid morality that uses the point of a gun to extract 'charity' from one group to give to another. (And don't deny that taxes are 'forced', just try not paying them, someone with guns will show up eventually.)

    September 23, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
    • gayjesus

      God forbid that your taxes should go to help somebody. If only your tax dollars could only go to things that you wanted them to. Well and then everyone else's would have to go for that as well since it would take more than just your tax dollars to pay for it and then you would be a socialist.

      Since when in the history of our world have people been able to dictate where their taxes had gone?

      September 23, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • Dean

      It isn't a number 'picked out of the air'. It is a calculated number that takes into account the cost of housing, food, etc. (basic cost of living). The presumption is that if you earn less than that number, you cannot afford the basics and therefore lack either proper housing, proper nutrition or some other necessity. I wish people would actually use their so-called intelligence before spouting nonsense. But that would presume the average IQ is higher than it actually is. Sad.

      September 23, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • Keefster

      Spoken like one who has his own BS (Belief System) completely worked out to his satisfaction.

      September 23, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • af090391

      @gayjesus-Instead of asking whether or not its been done in history, how bout you ask yourself if its right?

      September 23, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • Dean

      @af090391 – no, it is not right. Humans are essentially self-centered and will only help those they actually have some affinity for (family, friends or those of similar color/religion/etc.). This clearly leaves out the minorities, and those who live in very urban areas. People no longer know their neighbors because they don't work where they live – and rarely even 'live' where they own a home. So, they wouldn't help even their neighbors. This is why charity alone *does not work*. There are plenty of charities in the world – so why aren't all the poor people cared for, even in this – the richest of all countries? Do you see a flaw in your little philosophy yet?

      September 23, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
  11. rlcommenter

    It's not poverty when a person receives so much "Government Assistance" they can't report earnings or risk losing the benefits.. We've created a culture of "work under the table for cash" so you can continue to receive benefits... To report income and become a tax contributor is out of the question... It's not poverty, it's the new living wage in our cities...

    September 23, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
    • Dean

      You do have a point – the system is set up to discourage people from working low-wage jobs. If you have more than $500 in assets (including a crappy car), you lose the benefits entirely. It isn't a graduated system, it is all or nothing – so either you have a decent job, or you take welfare. There is no in between.

      September 23, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
  12. tactstl

    So really, adjusting the actual numbers of Americans in poverty, it is 10%. In other words, one in ten people in this country are as poor as some third-world countries citizens. Man if you can't get your act together in America (finish basic education at least, if not technical training), you may as well call it a day and bury yourself. Because it is easier here to be a dead weight on society than any other country in the world. Most countries you would of just starved to death years ago, much less had 9 kids you can't support, like yourself. Now go off to your local retail store and buy a bunch of soda and candy for with your SNAP/EBT card, but be sure to give yourself time to stop by the pharmacy so you can buy your $0.0 insulin shots!

    September 23, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
  13. Jay

    Jesus demonstrated a clear compassion toward the poor, and strong approval for anyone who reaches out to help them. It's interesting that he never encourged anyone to lobby the GOVERNMENT to help the poor; instead his message was "YOU give them something to eat!" (Mt 14:16). For the government to take money from the rich and give it to the poor is not generosity; instead it stifles true generosity by causing the rich to feel violated. There must be a more Gospel-centered way to address this problem.

    Mr Beckmann, thank you for your hard work on behalf of our poor. Please keep it up.

    September 23, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
    • Zach

      I don't much care how it makes the wealthy feel. I AM TIRED OF THE WEALTHY EXPLOITING THE POOR. You want to talk about defacto theft? Let's talk about the race to the bottom and how the wealthy horde resources only to misuse them.

      September 23, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
    • Jessica, NJ

      Food banks are constantly running low on food because not enough people help the poor. That is why the government helps them. It IS what Jesus would do.

      September 23, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • W247

      Thank you for a great reply Jay. This is exactly as it should be.

      September 23, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
  14. humtake

    Really? You try to drive home your points by making up questions? Everyone knows poverty exists. Poverty exists just like rich people exist. How could you even think that this is not known by everyone? I think 5 year olds figure this out the moment they find out their friend has an XBOX, PS3, and Wii and all they have is a Super Nintendo.

    All this guy did was write down stupid questions he wants people to think others are confused about so he could write answers that might make him look like an educated person.

    September 23, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
    • Dean

      Clearly it failed with you, because you obviously lack education. Please read to learn, and stop posting drivel.

      September 23, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
  15. Willie

    It is not the government's responsibility to end poverty though. Similar to the sentiments in this article it is christian followers responsibility to end poverty and help pay for others. I am tired of the government being blamed or being required to be responsible. I know what my duties are as a christian and one of my duties is to assure all of gods creatures are taken care of, which I do quite frequently.

    September 23, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • Jessica, NJ

      If all the "good" Christians contributed ENOUGH to the poor there would be no need for government involvement. Unfortunately there are not enough good Christians out there. I see mostly greedy ones who would let them die rather than lifting a finger to help them.

      September 23, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • Dean

      If you believe that the US is a government "Of the people, for the people and by the people", then your statement is very clearly wrong. It *is* the government's responsibility to take care of the people – because it *is* the people – and saying it should only be through charity is simply saying "Those who benefit from having a society and government shouldn't have to pay for it – they should only benefit from it and give back only to those they want to, and only in the amount they want to". Yeah, good luck with that concept... deep thinker, I can tell.

      September 23, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
    • W247

      Jessica – can you think outside of your own little realm here for a moment? There are good Christians out there that are also feeling the pinch of a down-turned economy as well. Despite their own empty bank accounts, they still do try to find some money to help out others.

      When I was in India, I heard stories of people that were beyond poor. Even in this state, they found something that they could give to help out others. Most of the time is was eggs from their chickens or some kind of vegetable they grew in their garden.

      September 23, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
  16. Michael Long

    Myth No. 6 Poverty only becomes a CNN news story when Republicans begin their primary debates, and when the media wishes to place the problem on Republicans instead of their favorite president Barak Obama. The media ought to be asking "what is Obama doing about poverty, especially among blacks, now that he is in charge", not bring up the subject now and focus it on the Republicans....

    September 23, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • cb

      what exactly do you expect Obama to be able to do about poverty without the cooperation of the Republicans?

      September 23, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
    • NOo..oON

      sorry, but what cooperation from the Republicans did Obama have when he passed the Affordable Health Care for America Act?
      Correct, none! (or very little anyway.)

      September 23, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • Dean

      Yes, let's instead focus only on Obama, and forget the other 535 clowns that were elected to PASS LEGISLATION. After all, the executive branch only enforces the laws, Congress writes them... or didn't your 5th grade teacher cover that little fact (perhaps you were too busy rolling your eyes thinking the teacher was stupid and you'd never have to actually use this stuff...)

      September 23, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
  17. onlooker

    What isn't also mentioned is that the quality of food that people living in poverty can afford is some of the most unhealthiest you can get. Just empty calories. Fresh food is a lot of the times out of reach for them and then adds diabetes and other health issues into play. Which then starts relating to healthcare costs and affordable health insurance options.

    September 23, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • W247

      I think that is a huge crime that fast food, processed food, un-natural food is cheaper then healthy food. Now THAT you can blame on the government and their greed.

      September 23, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
  18. demogal

    Great points one and all. We as a nation should be ashamed. And Congressional Republicans should be particularly ashamed of themselves!

    September 23, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
  19. Pippa

    Faith, Hope and Love(Charity) and the greatest of these is Love.

    To whom much is given much is expected!

    September 23, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
  20. *frank*

    "We pray that the needs of hungry and poor people are at the center of their decisions."
    Good luck with that one.

    September 23, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
    • 13Directors

      I know, right.

      September 23, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
    • catz

      For sure...I'd say the chances are slim and none.

      September 23, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.