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. Mike

    Its obvious a big change needs to be made. Mabey its not our politics, as much as it is our business practices. Many people, are charged too much for the service that they get and are paid as little as can be got away with. There's a handfull of people in the country who rake it in and they don't want to share. Its what got us in this position in the first place. So how do you tell a person 'Hey Dude, you've made too much money, step aside and let someone else have a go'

    September 24, 2011 at 9:37 am |
  2. Rainer Braendlein

    Someone is poor, if he has not enough to feed or to dress (including no sufficient shelter).

    Someone is not yet poor, if he cannot afford a car, a holiday trip, a nice garden or a ticket for an opera. This is not yet poverty, but a modest life.

    Some people may call a modest life a life in poverty and may call real poverty desti-tution, but that is actually wrong. I suppose, not a few people would like to own a garden. It may be quite ordinary at rural areas to own a garden. But at conurbations it is luxury. Thus, if you life in a big city without a garden, you are not poor, but you don't have reached the highest standard of living.

    Everybody, working about 40 hours per week, will have enough money to survive. There are several reasons, why someone cannot earn enough money. Maybe he suffers from a confirmed disease or he his mentally handicapped or he is a blind man or or deaf or has got any other disability. Some people may have a lack of soft skills and thus don't manage to cope with work life.

    Every Western society will care for people with clear disabilities like deafness or blindness.

    The problematic group of poor people are the people, having got a lack of soft skills.

    I suppose, the increasing lack of soft skills more and more harms the work life. Most things can solely get produced by teamwork. It is not enough, when some people have a certain gifts, they also have to cooperate, in order to produce something. Five enemies will never cooperate, but five friends.

    Private friendship depends mostly on sympathy. Nobody forms a friendship with somebody, whom he finds repulsive.

    At the workplace we find sometimes people, which are not exactly according to our taste. However, at the workplace we are supposed to cope with them. This is a very hard lesson to learn, actually that hard that we cannot succeed without God's help. We are all born enemies. Actually we often perceive our neighbours as a burden for us (we are a fallen mankind).

    God is able to give us love (for our workmates and for everybody). Maybe by the ordinary daily work God wants to educate us. It is not only about processing certain equal routines every day, but also about loving our workmates with all their weaknesses (sins).

    Of course, the ability to love somebody, independend from his natural character (capricious), is pure Christianity. The natural man is a slave of hatred and will always find a real reason for his hatred. He needs divine help to overcome his hate, for which he will always find an excuse (of course our neighbours do things, which really harm us, but God wants that we learn not to revenge ourselves).

    The Gospel:

    Jesus Christ has borne our sins on the cross. Believe it and get baptized (if you have yet received infant baptism, don't get baptized again. Just refer to your infant baptism, which is valid.). At baptism the power of Jesus death and resurrection is dedicated to you. Your old man of sin dies and you resurrect together with Jesus to a new life. God gives you righteousness as a cost-free present. Rightousness, of course, means loving God and your neigbour (also workmates) at any rate. God gives you two presents at the same time: Forgiveness and a new life in Christian love. Either you take both presents or you get nothing at all. Show the rightousness, which God gave you: Love your neighbour in God's power.

    September 24, 2011 at 9:03 am |
    • Untheo

      Nice rambling post Whiner.

      Now, why doesn't your uber powerful, kind, wonderful god do a da-mn thing about human suffering and poverty? Because your god doesn't exist.

      September 24, 2011 at 11:00 am |
  3. jtm080

    I encourage everyone to actually read the poverty statistics:


    September 24, 2011 at 8:40 am |
  4. jtm080

    I encourage readers to take a look at the poverty statistics in this country:


    September 24, 2011 at 8:38 am |
  5. Jeanie T

    Dear Rebecca, Please go out and find an apartment and try to eat even sorta healthy food on minimum wage. Not all places have public transportation. That said, you would really have to figure in the cost of the minimum wage job–car expenses, car insurance, gasoline. Even if you have an older cheep model car. Please get out your calculator and do the math–even at $25,000 per year and in the low cost place I llive (mid-America) it is not possible to actually 'make it' on that much–don't forget to factor in electricity and fuel for heat. And so far we have not spoken about clothes ( most of our stuff comes from 2nd hand stores- you should see what the rich throw away) and I have not even begun to mention children. Please refigure and let me know how that works for you.

    September 24, 2011 at 7:39 am |
  6. SilverTrail

    America, if half of your population is not losing weight because of hunger, don't talk about your poverty. Whatever happens, you are still feeding yourself with the most stupid kind of American comedies. You are not miserable yet. You are not in need. You just want to hear some sensations.

    September 24, 2011 at 2:52 am |
    • Dawn

      Many poor people are overweight because it costs less to purchase junk food at a local convenience store than it costs to get to a suburban supermarket where they can purchase healthy food.

      Please put your prejudice aside and educate yourself about this issue.

      September 24, 2011 at 7:48 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      @Dawn: you might as well try speaking to a slug...it might actually listen and have more comprehension skills than Silver Trail does. She lives strictly by the bible and does not really care if people suffer...she only cares that they do as she says in regards to belief or she condemns them to some fiery pit she calls hell. She does not look at the real reason that people suffer only the fact that they suffer and she feels this is right. What she does not realize is that it is not only non-believer's who suffer, it is also christians and every other walk of life. She is uneducated in any matter that does not occur within the bible. Maybe if the churches she follows and put her blind faith in to would start paying taxes there would be no need for people to endure the hardships or at least less of a need. The churches only help those who agree to listen to their garbage, whereas a needy person should not have to go through that type of treatment in order to be given the necessities of life.

      September 24, 2011 at 10:08 am |
  7. Earnest Angley

    if you are fat or have a TV , you are not living in poverty. You are just making immature decisions with your money.

    September 24, 2011 at 1:09 am |
    • Jimmy-James

      If only your idea of what poverty is meant as much to others as it does to you. Sadly, for you, it does not.

      September 24, 2011 at 5:41 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      Ignorance is what that statement portrays! Education and help is what people need. Parents can't afford to properly feed their children due to being impoverished and thus feed them fatty foods (cheaper than feeding them heart-healthy food) that eventually cost these kids health issues.

      September 24, 2011 at 10:11 am |
  8. bobby

    The "half do not pay taxes" line is a common misconception. Class warfare anyone?

    September 24, 2011 at 12:40 am |
    • Mike


      September 24, 2011 at 10:04 am |
  9. Oblivious

    Interesting stats, but what about the 150 years of our country before the New Deal ? How did the impoverished survive without handouts and food stamps? I will leave it at that.

    September 24, 2011 at 12:26 am |
    • Thomas

      they didn't. we had people starving in the gutter.

      September 24, 2011 at 12:42 am |
    • Xen1313

      They would hunt and kill their food, without need of a permit. Or would end up dead, or do some crime that would put them away. Act crazy so they could be committed.

      September 24, 2011 at 2:06 am |
    • Kiljoy616

      ROFL don't stop reading your fantasy book (bible) you may may wake up and get scared. Old debate that seems to never go anywhere with believer in the death cult religion.

      September 24, 2011 at 10:17 am |
  10. Reality

    One more time:

    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 11:57 pm |
    • Mavent

      Other than the crack of your ass, where did you get those numbers?

      September 24, 2011 at 12:03 am |
    • brown

      This is why I contribute nothing to non profit organizations. I used to work for one
      and understand the hypocrisy better than most.

      September 24, 2011 at 1:02 am |
    • Reality


      As per my comment, http://www.guidestar.org.

      September 24, 2011 at 7:31 am |
  11. OneInAMillion

    If we tax the churches, they'll probably cut back an equal amount on their outreach and charity programs. Perhaps they should. Churches do send money and volunteerism to feed the hungry, teach the illiterate and other programs. If we tax the churches, some of the money and time used in these charitable activities would go into the taxes.

    September 23, 2011 at 11:44 pm |
    • Kiljoy616

      Churches do nothing at all, they feed only if they can push their garbage on others but if you don't want to listen they don't help. That is why I give money to organization that have no religions affiliation which means I know that most of the money is going to help the poor and helpless. But who is going to argue with mental retardation of Jesus followers its just a waste of time.

      September 24, 2011 at 10:20 am |
  12. Shawn Irwin

    We NEED a church . . . that worships the Flying Spagetti Monster . . . . just to show people how ridiculus it is for the government to exempt churches from taxation. We all know the Flying Spagetti Monster exists, I myself have seen him several times at food fights, so we have just as much proof that he exists as the christians or any other religions have of their "gods".

    September 23, 2011 at 11:22 pm |
    • yahmez

      I assume you are dressed as a pirate as you type... 🙂

      September 23, 2011 at 11:41 pm |
    • Mavent

      Are you a professional idiot, or are you trying to retain your amateur status? The difference is (as you yourself pointed out) that the juvenile d0uchebags who claim to follower the FSM don't do anything useful, and don't really believe their own idiocy.

      September 24, 2011 at 12:05 am |
    • Kiljoy616

      Amen, easier to believe in that than the mental retardation religions based on Abrahamic folklore.

      September 24, 2011 at 10:25 am |
  13. yahmez

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. This means the government is not to advocate any religion, or forbid it. It does not mean religions should get a free pass on fiscal responsibilities. Tax the churches! The "Boston Tea Party" was about taxation without representation. I resent the religious right manipulating our political system and government policies, yet dodging responsibility for it's expenses. That's representation without taxation, and gives a minority unfair advantage over the democratic process.

    September 23, 2011 at 10:00 pm |
    • David Johnson

      If the 2012 elections go badly for the Dems, you could well see a Christian Theocracy in this country. That my friend will be a hell on earth. Let's pray the Republicans fail.


      September 23, 2011 at 11:12 pm |
  14. Lostraven

    The saying "Poverty Breeds Poverty" is a statement of fact. One of the reasons why there are so many children in this country who are living in poverty, is because they're parents are uneducated or lack marketable job skills. Education is the key to a person raising out of poverty. Unfortunately that is something that is easier said then done when so many of these people are from second, third, forth and even fifth generation families who have always lived off the system. Thus making living off the system a way of life for them and the society that this has created. Foodstamps, Section 8 and other such programs were never intended for generaton after generation to use them in this way. Limits need to be established and those living on assistance like this need to be given the choice to accept job training and or education, or lose their HANDOUTS. There also needs to be a limit established as to how many children/family members will be supported setting a maximum number of four for example, for an established time period. To many of these families are having children like rabbits. Many do this just to keep the assistance rolling in and sadly many of these children end up just like their parent(s), or worse.

    September 23, 2011 at 9:49 pm |
    • Rebecca

      I believe churches should pay taxes, most act more like big corporations than ministries of God.

      September 23, 2011 at 11:56 pm |
    • Gary

      I'm glad you are not a Christian

      September 24, 2011 at 12:56 am |
  15. Grifiths

    David have you been to Walmart lately in line with people paying with food stamps wearing design jeans, nike sneakers and talking on iphone plus overweight and buying junk food with cash. Come on David, we need to put people to work or go back to school. No free rides. Unbelievable amount of young people standing in the line cashing government checks @ the first of the month with a couple of kids

    September 23, 2011 at 9:45 pm |
    • David Johnson


      I agree with you! But what are you going to do with the children of parents who won't cooperate? You can't take them away. That is more trauma for everyone. The solution is not easy.


      September 23, 2011 at 11:10 pm |
  16. SilverTrail

    America needs to lose weight. Come to North Korea to see real poverty. Atheism makes nations desolate.

    September 23, 2011 at 8:52 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      And stupid. Witness Addled.

      September 23, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
    • Matt

      Colombia is 96.7% Christian. Last I checked, they weren't doing so well. Same with Greece (98.0%). Zambia, Ecuador, Venezuela, all among the most Christian countries, all places I wouldn't want to live.

      September 23, 2011 at 11:54 pm |
    • Rebecca

      This comment is ignorant. Stop attributing good things to Christianity that do not exist. Name a church in this country that is anything close to Christianity, anyway. These corporate churches are no more Christian than megacorporations are capitalists.

      September 24, 2011 at 12:01 am |
    • SilverTrail

      All the rich and better-off nations on earth have been Christendom for the last 1,000 years. Ja-pan and a few Asian cities are the only exceptions as they mimicked the West as if life depends on it. It takes time for the Christian intelligence to take root. Any nation is better than atheistic North Korea. You Americans became stupid, lazy, not-so-beautiful and selfish by abandoning Christianity. Poor your ancestors to sacrifice so much for godless descendants like you!

      September 24, 2011 at 2:45 am |
    • SilverTrail

      PS: North America and Australia have started out by Christians though their histories as nations are short.

      September 24, 2011 at 2:47 am |
    • SilverTrail

      @Rebecca: Where is your name from? You Westerners have nothing worthy if you did not have the Bible and the Judeo-Christian religion. American Indians rank only with the barbaric pre-christian Europeans.

      September 24, 2011 at 2:50 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      Maybe if the churches would stop praying for a solution and start paying taxes we could start to correct some of the problem! Silver Trail-you are one of the most clueless, ignorant christians ever to be born on this planet.

      September 24, 2011 at 6:53 am |
  17. Dawn

    Welfare to work is a joke. We provide cash assistance and food to people and tell them to get a job in a short timeframe. If you don't find work you lose your assistance. So the people that need help are forced to work minimum wage and still need help!!! Why don't we focus on education? Let's send these people to school or teach a trade. If they don't want to learn how to get a good job and support themselves then they lose assistance. It would save the taxpayers money. Paying to get someone an education for a couple of months or years would save us from having to pay for their food for many years. Two years for a college degree or ten to feed their family?

    September 23, 2011 at 8:42 pm |
    • mrdandbigb

      What's really sad is if you work part time because you have kids and can't afford daycare they tell you that is not good enough. They think if you work 40 hours a week you can afford groceries and to pay for childcare. I don't know where some of those decisions are made in state but when was the last time they paid for daycare? I would have to work 40 hours a week making $11 an hour just to pay for daycare for all three of my children and that would still not be enough.

      September 23, 2011 at 9:47 pm |
    • David Johnson


      I love your thoughts on this. But, what do you do with the people who refuse to work, but have 3 kids to feed? Would you not give them food stamps? No welfare check for diapers? It is easy when you are talking about able bodied adults. Much harder when children are involved.


      September 23, 2011 at 11:02 pm |
    • David Johnson


      You are exactly right. We need day care centers that are free or low cost and SAFE!


      September 23, 2011 at 11:07 pm |
    • Rebecca

      I would support free education for all citizens, through university level if we had examinations for every year like many other countries. Every person will not do well in advanced education and there need to be reasonable jobs for them. They certainly should be able to rent and apartment and eat on minimum wage.

      September 24, 2011 at 12:04 am |
  18. Big Al

    The answer to #5 is given at an Obama-quality level of deception.... The claim is really "47% of Americans pay no FEDERAL taxes". And just because most of the people in this 47% category actually pay taxes doesn't mean that a vast majority of them don't get a refund equal to or greater than the taxes they paid-in. Thus, they PAID NO TAX!

    September 23, 2011 at 8:13 pm |
    • Matt

      Come out and say it, Big Al. You want to take away tax credits for having children, tax credits for the elderly and disabled, tax credits for adoptive parents. You want to take away tax credits for college education and homebuyers. People pay no NET FEDERAL income tax because they either are in poverty or these tax credits wipe their federal tax debt. So to make people pay their "fair share", you are talking about either taxing those in poverty or repealing these tax credits that disproportionately benefit the many lower and middle class Americans.

      September 24, 2011 at 12:04 am |
  19. RightTurnClyde

    S i n c e . .M r . O . b e c a m e . .p r e z . .h e . .h a s . .d o n e . .m o r e . .t o . .i m p o v e r i s h . .E V E R Y O N E . .t h a n . .a n y . .p r z . .i n . .h i s t o r y . . . . .N a n c y . .P e l o s i . .a n d . .H a r r y . .R e e d . .h e l p e d . .h i m T h e . .h a v e . .f o r c e d . .c o r p o r a t i o n s . .o u t . .o f . .b u s i n e s s , . .p u t . .m o r e . .e m p l o y e e s . .o u t . .o f . .w o r k , . .p a n d e r e d . .t o . .u n i o n s . .a n d . .t r i a l . .l a w y e r s , . .i n c r e a s e d . .s p e n d i n g . .b y . .t r i l l i o n s , . .r u i n e d . .t h e . .U . S . .c r e d i t . .r a t i n g . .a n d . .d e v a l u e d . .t h e . .d o l l a r . .( i n . .t h e . .p r o c e s s . .a s . .w e . .s p e a k . .o f . .b e c o m i n g . .w e a k e r ) . . .T h e y . .h a v e . .c h a s e d . .a w a y . .b i g . .i n v e s t o r s . .a n d . .i n c r e a s e d . .t h e . .c o s t s . .o f . .d o i n g . .b u s i n e s s O b v i o u s l y . .T H E Y . .d o . .n o t . .a g r e e . .t h a t . .t h e y . .o u g h t . .t o . .b e . .m a k i n g . .A m e r i c a n s . .l e s s . .i m p o v e r i s h e d . . .

    September 23, 2011 at 8:07 pm |
    • *frank*

      e y e s t r a i n...

      September 23, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
    • TruthPrevails

      Hey Herbert, this is the kind of post you need to be reporting as abusive...it is not comprehensible!

      September 24, 2011 at 6:54 am |
    • Kiljoy616

      Yes keep telling your self that after all any make believe will do. All I know is I made plenty of money under bush and obama so I really could care less if there are more poor people.

      September 24, 2011 at 10:28 am |
  20. Equality Jack

    It's long past time to TAX ALL ORGANIZATIONS, especially religious organizations.

    To give religious orgs any kind of special consideration blatantly violates the First Amendment!!!!!

    It's time to end this constant prejudice and bigotry and start taxing these businesses and return a measure of equality to our country's revenue stream.

    September 23, 2011 at 7:23 pm |
    • Taxpaying American Voter

      Yes, it's time to tax these tax cheaters who get special privileges they are expressly forbidden to have. Tax the churches NOW!

      September 23, 2011 at 8:36 pm |
    • Rebecca

      I agree that churches need to be taxed.

      September 24, 2011 at 12:06 am |
    • Rebecca

      Church taxes could go directly to social programs, nothing spent on the military!

      September 24, 2011 at 12:07 am |
    • SilverTrail

      Non-christian American gathering looks a bunch of idiots – drinking, smoking, drugging, swearing and sleeping around like animals. Muslims are 1 million times more honorable. USA without Christianity is a garbage can both internal and external.

      September 24, 2011 at 4:04 am |
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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.