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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?

Wrong.

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. Nate

    to hell w god – get a job and work – period.

    September 23, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • Jomama Izaho

      LOL! What jobs? How about we start the social Darwinism once we're back at full employment?

      September 23, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
  2. Nick

    23,000 for a family of four is a joke.

    Well fare programs should only be made available for those who WORK! Nothing wrong with helping someone working two or three jobs. But the leaches who do not work should be thrown off ASAP, their children taken to homes if necessary.

    September 23, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • Jomama Izaho

      Ok, but how about we start the social Darwinism when there are jobs to be had? I swear, everyone making comments like this must be living in their mother's basement and only seeing the outside world through their ideological fantasies.

      September 23, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
  3. ct

    it's "nearly 50% don't pay FEDERAL INCOME TAX" Get it right and try again.

    September 23, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
    • Adam

      Incorrect. Just by working, they are paying into the tax system in the form of payroll taxes paid in their name by the employer. This is not money that they can get back via refund if they meet the income guidelines, it stays with the government. This tax is factored into the wages that employers offer, so yes, it is paid by the employee in the end in the form of reduced wages.

      Just because the employer pays the tax, doesn't mean the person hasn't contributed to the tax rolls.

      September 23, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
    • Jomama Izaho

      And that 50% counts not just poor people, but retirees, stay at home parents, the disabled, and rich people without jobs. Hey, let's count school-age kids too, then we could really make it seem like those poor, poor millionaires are getting the shaft with our dishonest statistics that our idiot base won't bother to research.

      September 23, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
  4. Don Leeger

    The statement that Social Security Recipients do not pay taxes on their social security benefits is incorrect! If you have any other income, social security benefits are included in the total income amount and you DO pay taxes on your social security income.

    September 23, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  5. Justin Hamaker

    One of the single largest issues related to poverty in the United States is the failure of our education system – especially in impoverished areas. As a nation, we need to make investment in quality education a top priority. Instead, school budgets are constantly being marginalized. Failing to provide an education for kids already living in poverty only serves to continue the cycle. The United States has the resources to ensure that every child had access to a first rate education, we just need to decide to make it our national priority.

    September 23, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • steve

      So what if you get a good education. You can still be screwed if there is no work.

      September 23, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
    • Jomama Izaho

      If we had a first rate education system, we'd have jobs- because we wouldn't be voting for crooks who send our jobs overseas.

      September 23, 2011 at 5:49 pm |
  6. Dan

    I agree, if you have to have help feeding your kids – by all means stop having them!!!! Someone is paying for your food, power, health care etc. – just not you.

    September 23, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
    • Adam

      Yes, because economic hardship NEVER happens years AFTER having children.

      Idiot.

      September 23, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • mrEd

      You're a true humanitarian Dan.

      September 23, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • Bill

      Then allow the federal money to pay for abortion.

      September 23, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
    • JB

      That is a great concept. However, many peoeple I know around me that are struggling actually had children when times were good and had resources. Since then though loss of jobs, illness, or accident, or loss of a spouse or bread winner they can no longer provide for they families they already have. So your statement though true for some, is not so true for the vast majority that have hit hard times. These statments only confuse the real issue and resolves nothing. Primary answers are for choirs not problem solvers.

      September 23, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • Jomama Izaho

      Dan is just one of those people that believe the word "Poverty" only applies to drugged out minorities in dystopic inner cities. You drink enough kool-aide, and the world becomes an over-simplified place.

      September 23, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
  7. Jared

    @seanNJ Maybe it was wrong of me to say most in poverty are there because they deserve it, I can only speak from my experiences growing up in a relatively impoverished area, where every single trailer somehow had a satellite dish on it. My main argument is against those who always look at issues like this and think, well we need to do more, when in reality our government needs to do it better. Unlike a business, the govt rarely looks at its current system to make changes in order to more with the money they have, they just want more money to pump into a failed system. Once the system is run in a responsible manner, then lets decide if we need to spend more.

    September 23, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Jared.

      The DOLE as it used to be called has existed since well before Christ.

      The mathmatical truth is each society has a "tipping point".

      Once the number of people in poverty passes that point, the government is overthrown or a civil war breaks out.

      You HAVE to feed the poor, or they will kill you.

      It is the logic of history.

      You can make some VERY poor and more than half just poor, but if you make more than half really poor, they kill you and take your stuff.

      September 23, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
  8. llmb

    There is another myth and that is that people who have a lot of money work hard and people with very little money are lazy and don't work at all. I personally have known very wealthy people who have never done a lick of work in their lives and very poor people who work like dogs just to keep food on the table. Some poor people are lazy and some rich people are lazy. In truth, money has more to do with birth, luck and a certain type of personality than with being either hard working or lazy. Some of the greatest artists ever were poor as church mice during their lifetimes. And some of the creepiest criminals have been rich as kings. We as a society have a moral obligation to see that everyone is fed and clothed. The government is the best vehicle for this, just as it is for defense and infrastructure building.

    September 23, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
    • Mr. Sinister

      We have absolutely no moral, legal or ethical obligation to help those who will not help themselves. Let them die and decrease the surplus worthless population!

      September 23, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Actually I agree.

      I have always done well, but rarely work hard.

      I tell my son the key is to have specialized knowledge, and find someone who needs it.

      Smart sells, but hard work USUALLY goes to the lowest bidder.

      September 23, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
    • llmb

      Mr Sinister– you are free to declare that you are not a member of society.

      September 23, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
  9. Bob

    You lose all your credibility (not that your article generally did anything to maintain or boost it) when you start quoting from the bible.

    September 23, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
    • Jim

      No, you just lost all credibility

      September 23, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  10. William Demuth

    Poverty scares me the way it unfolds here.

    If "Prodcutivity" is genetic and we give subsidies to the less productive that encourages them to breed, don't we eventually deplete our genetic collective productivity?

    Legislating against Darwin seems at best self destructive.

    September 23, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
    • Jomama Izaho

      So many false premises to this line of thought. Is there any evidence that productivity is genetic? Is productivity the sole measure of worth for a human being? What about priests, artsists, philosphers, parents who put their kids ahead of their pocket books... Do we decide these people should not be able to live in our society because they offer our corporations very little human resource value? Do we really want to live in a world like that? It really seems you conservatives are yearning for the kind of dystopia that has always been considered a hell on earth scenario.

      It scares me that the people with all the money and power in this nation are beginning to push eugenics for the poor for the "good of humanity". We've been here before, and it wasn't pretty. When you start deciding who gets to breed and who gets to live, who draws the income line? Should we sterilize everyone below the poverty line, or are there some unproductive people making more? Maybe we should only allow millionaires to breed, since wealth is your only measurement of human worth? A whole world of Paris Hiltons and devoid of art, thought or faith...

      September 23, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Jomama Izaho

      Your concern is noted, but the question is a legitimate one.

      Are we breeding an inferior tomorrow?

      Only time will tell

      September 23, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • Jomama Izaho

      Oh, and the best way to reduce people's "breeding", aside from murder or forced sterilization (I thought you people were terrified of "DEATH PANELS") is to raise them out of poverty.

      September 23, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Jomama Izaho

      And thereis a FAR cry between sterilizing, and refusing to subsidize.

      I do believe less money and free birth control for the poor is an acceptable position. It is NOT sterilization.

      Then again, for chronic offenders, I do think forced birth control while under subsidies is reasonable.

      September 23, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Jomama Izaho

      Me? I am as far left as Marx.

      But reality is reality none the less. Every dime taken from me and given to them undermines my own offsprings chances of thriving, and that I can not accept.

      A hand up in emergency, but not a chaise lounge.

      September 23, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
    • Jomama Izaho

      Well, since I am a child that grew up in poverty, and I worked hard to get an education, and now am in the top 93% of household incomes in this nation, with a 150 IQ and can bench 300 lbs, I still think your idea that kids that grow up in poverty are genetically inferior is a lot of EVIL nonsense. It sounds more like a way for people like you to feel superior while you live in your momma's basement.

      September 23, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
    • Jomama Izaho

      Again, false premise. Building a stable society based on respect for human life and paid for with taxes is not going to reduce your children's chances for passing on your genes any more then building a society where the government or your employer get to decide who breeds. A lot of poverty results from misfortune- what if your son has a child, then is severely injured in an accident which kills his wife and renders him unable to work? Suddenly your genes are not getting passed on anymore, when the gubmint has his inferior, impoverished children sterilized. Seriously, these evil lines of reasoning don't hold up, and only come from people who don't think any further then their own supposed superiority.

      September 23, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
  11. ArchiedeBunker

    Did those people who were skinning and eating the rats take advantage of the opportunity to get an education when they were young? I'm guessing not. Any person who does not genuinely apply himself in school has no right to expect anything but poverty. We are the first nation in history to offer a free education to all people – and have huge numbers of them thumb their noses at that opportunity. Instead of offering more welfare money, we need to send pickup trucks with bull horns into every poor community and have them broadcast the startling message to the kids living there – if you want something better than your parents had, go to school and actually get an education. It's there for you, free, even with lunch provided, and if you refuse to do homework or refuse to study or attend class, then don't expect those better off than you to keep digging into their pockets to help you. We can continue to increase welfare until everyone in the U. S. is broke (Obama and his gang would LOVE that!), but poverty will never decrease one bit until people take responsibility for themselves.

    September 23, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
    • Jared

      Amen, its the land of opportunity. When you waste that opportunity, you live with the results. That being said there are those who need handouts, we just need to find out a way to assure those receiving these benefits are deserving.

      September 23, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
    • Yuveth

      The ones eating the rats.. had jobs.. a single parent household .. but gosh I guess that doesn't matter huh.. or maybe you think the single mom prob deserves it .. she should have just kept her legs closed ? Does it matter that her husband walked away from his responsibilities ? .. na.. that doesn't matter either. Perhaps I should focus on minimum wage.. or perhaps how Capit. had a hand in why that family was eating rats.. but nah.. none of it matters. What does matter .. is this was one family who I know this was happening to.. and I know there are more out there..

      The point is.. this is America we are speaking about. It.. has turned into the third world... Now.. live with that..

      September 23, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
    • Jomama Izaho

      Yuck, I don't know if I want my kids growing up in a world full of anti-christian Ayn Rand cultists who put zero value on human life- and I'm an atheist. Look, our education system is a joke, and the unemployment rate for recent college graduates is 9.5%. Keep drinking the koolaid and keep believing nothing bad will ever happen to you- and I'll see you in the soup lines.

      September 23, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
  12. Guest

    "Fifty percent of Americans do not pay taxes."

    Now what percent of Americans don't pay INCOME taxes? You forgot to mention that part.

    September 23, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
  13. Marty in MA

    Republicans never talk about the poor.

    September 23, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
  14. 2tired2care

    Try living on $1,167 a month with no health care, dental, retirement, etc. before you talk about the poor being lazy. I wish every politician would try it for 3 months.

    September 23, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
  15. iJames

    why on earth would someone have another kid if they only 12,000 a year. Then decide to have 3 more...
    You would think they would of realized that if they cant afford 1 then they cant afford 3 more.
    But yet responsible hard working people. get their hard earned money taken from them to pay for someone else bad decisions.
    IF YOU CAN'T FEED THEM, THEN DON'T BREED THEM.

    September 23, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
    • iJames

      MAKE*

      September 23, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
    • CosmoChick

      because unfortunately, poverty often goes hand in hand with uneducated... while it might seem obvious to you that having more children won't help them, they don't see themselves as having that option...

      think about it... isn't that the entire problem in africa? uneducated, unaware of contraception options, often very religious (i.e. it's your role to have children+no contraception)...

      for many, adding another mouth to feed is not something they think they have a choice about...

      September 23, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
    • Jared

      @CosmoChick Well I guess its on us then for bringing Africa's problems here against their will.

      September 23, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • CosmoChick

      @jared ... huh?

      i was simply trying to draw a parallel. do you disagree?

      September 23, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • William Demuth

      CosmoChick

      You single? Something about your passion comes right thru the PC.

      If you actually do as much as you say, you would make one excellent catch for a young man!

      Bravo!

      September 23, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • CosmoChick

      Dear William, not sure if there was sarcasm there in your post (sorry, force of habit from lurking around and seeing the tone of the comments on this blog)....

      either way, thank you. i simply believe in giving back. i did not have much growing up and now i'm doing ok, so i believe i can give a little bit of my time helping others. i guess i believe in karma. i try to have a strong moral compass (don't always succeed) but resent being told that only those who "believe" can be morally true.

      of course now, everyone will assume that i am therefore an atheist. and they would be wrong. what i believe and why is personal to me: which is the whole point of this dicussion, what you believe does not dictate your moral fiber.

      *sigh... i'll get off my soapbox now.

      September 23, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
  16. steve

    banks did this to us.

    blame the poor, that is it!

    September 23, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
  17. 2tired2care

    The hate filled responses are unbelievable.

    September 23, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
    • Faith and Peace

      The hate comes from non-Christians. Christians understand their responsibility to society and recognize that the bible preaches the importance of taking care of our neighbors. These Godless people don't deserve a response. Ignore them and their refusal to solve our problems.

      September 23, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
    • CosmoChick

      To "Faith and Peace", i don't understand your comment. what makes you think that only those who believe in God are the charitable ones? Do you think morals are only for the religious.

      I have strong morals, i give financially to 2 charities every month and i volunteer in a shelter 3 times a week... none of which came to me because of my religion. my morals and concept of right and wrong and helping the underpriviledged came from my parents and my environment and what it taught me.

      you are insulting me and insulting your own intelligence if you think everything is as black and white as "religious people good, non-religious bad".

      September 23, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
    • Jared

      @faithandpeace Huh? Aren't like 3 out of every 4 Christians republican? Kind of hurts your argument.

      September 23, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • Jomama Izaho

      Last time I checked, all the politicians who were REALLY devout were the same ones advocating Darwinist rules for the poor. It's time to acknowledge that there is a sizeable population of people who claim to be Christian in this nation, but who follow amoral ideals far closer to Anti-Christianity. We people who belive everyone should be loved and cared for, and the best way to live a good life is to respect and love the least among us need to work together, not draw false sectarian lines around ourselves.

      September 23, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
  18. Nathan Prophet

    Please don't mention the phrase "I believe God is calling ...". As soon as I read that, I ran from this article. People like the Reverend mean well, but they are really scary.

    September 23, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
    • name

      i agree. don't be to prove your point by shoving religious nonsense down my throat. someone should've edited this article and removed that BS. i'm tired of religion. it causes more problems than it solves. and a lot of our "leaders" are religious which just gets in the way of the way of the decision making process.

      September 23, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  19. *SIGH*

    Anyone who receives welfare has to sign an agreement that if they get pregnant while on welfare, they forego all welfare privileges for the rest of their lives. Somehow that might curb the pregnancy rates. And of course if they can't afford to keep the baby, they give it up for adoption.

    September 23, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • CosmoChick

      Oooh, personally, i like that solution... but doesn't that infringe on individual rights or something?

      September 23, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
    • boyamidumb

      Wow. Another really stupid idea. You should be in Congress. Or are you?

      September 23, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
    • Sandi

      Sorry, but I've worked for HHSS in 2 different states that both were able to get around such a rule. It was meant to be a good thing, curbing the overpopulated lower income households....but do-gooder attorneys found loopholes. TOo many bleeding hearts have caused more problems than good.

      September 23, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
    • CosmoChick

      @boyamidumb: is it a stupid idea just because you don't agree with it? otherwise maybe you could explain WHY this is stupid idea?

      September 23, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • Jomama Izaho

      It's a bad idea because it is really cruel. Not all values of judgement can be distilled to an economic cost.

      September 23, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
  20. martinipaul

    Since this is a belief blog, how many of you 'screw the poor' people are atheists?

    September 23, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • 2tired2care

      Cue the crickets.

      September 23, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
    • CosmoChick

      of course, cuz atheist necessarily means evil and selfish, right?

      September 23, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
    • Justin Hamaker

      I am an atheist who grew up in a welfare home. My mom received a variety of government benefits – from cash aid to food stamps to housing assistance to free government cheese. While I acknowledge my mother's failure to take steps to lift herself from poverty, I also know how vital those government benefits were to ensuring my sister and I were taken care of. Without those various types of aid, I know there are times we would not have had a roof over our heads or food on the table.

      Although I believe there is room for improvement to avoid abuses in the system, I see government safety net programs as vital to the well being of many children.

      September 23, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
    • llmb

      I don't know, but I would guess that most of them are Tea Party Christians living on Social Security.

      September 23, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • martinipaul

      If you are not for screwing the poor, why reply? Don't you want to know who you're keeping company with?

      September 23, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • Sandi

      I'm Catholic. Born and raised. I don't think I'd call it "screw the poor people"....but I would fall into that category.

      September 23, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
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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.