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. LiberalNN

    Homework: playspent.org and see if you can make it 30 days living paycheck to paycheck like millions of Americans.

    September 23, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • joe

      There is something you forgot in your article. The reservations in the US! This beyond anyone's wild imaginations esp. here in SD. Poverty is not the proper word to describe the living conditions.

      September 23, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
    • Mike

      It ain't easy out here on the streets. Do a study on how homeless people are stealing from homeless people... and all the muggings that are occuring across the USA... I was mugged so bad I was unconscious for 12 hours and woke up the next day in the hospital not knowing where I was at and an orderly choking me out... Yuppies can go to hell.

      September 23, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
    • William Demuth


      Get off the streets while u still can. They will eat you alive

      September 23, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
  2. Gary

    I would like to see a study that determines the percentages of those living in poverty who:
    1. Are morbidly obese
    2. Have luxury items such as cell phones, flat screen t.v.s, dvd players, play station 3s, x-boxes, and Nike Air Jordans.
    3. Smoke cigarrettes
    4. Abuse alcohol
    5. Do drugs
    6. Sell drugs
    7. Earn money "under the table".
    8. Gamble at casinos, race tracks, etc.

    Just curious.

    September 23, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
    • n@ils

      many are...........but what is the government going to do about that?

      September 23, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • Brett

      Before you get this information, you should spend time to figure out what is or is not acceptable for a person on welfare to own. Maybe you should also consider that the poor in the US do not own these luxuries. They pay exorbitant amounts of money to the rent-to-own businesses. Finally, consider that it is next to impossible to find a good job anymore without a phone or a computer. Take those away and you eliminate any chance the poor have to improve their condition.

      September 23, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • Bert

      No, Gary you really don't want to see those answers because it would make you and most everybody else violently ill.

      September 23, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • myweightinwords

      1. Are morbidly obese

      Many who are poor are obese due to their poverty. When you have little funds to spend on food, you choose calories over health. You eat pasta and rice instead of broccoli and apples. It leads to obesity.

      2. Have luxury items such as cell phones, flat screen t.v.s, dvd players, play station 3s, x-boxes, and Nike Air Jordans.

      When I was a kid and we lived under the poverty level, we were often given these things by well meaning people, who couldn't conceive that the gaming console they just gave us was worth more than we spent on food for two months. And, because we were without so many things, we wouldn't sell it unless/until it became necessary...it was something to cling to, something that let us be just like all of our friends, at least for a while. Also, in today's market, I would argue that a cell phone and a computer are necessities, not luxuries.

      3. Smoke cigarrettes

      Yeah, a lot of the poor do. Can't argue that. We all have vices. And when everyone around you smokes, it's hard not to pick them up too.

      4. Abuse alcohol

      You might be surprised. We all know the horror stories of course, but not every poor person drinks, let alone drinks to access.

      5. Do drugs
      6. Sell drugs

      Often these go hand in hand. Whether it is selling to support the habit, or selling bringing them into doing, but also, if successful with the selling with lift them out of poverty, so I'm not sure what the point is.

      7. Earn money "under the table".

      You mean that $10 for babysitting the neighbors kid until she got home from her 3rd minimum wage job? Or the $20 for changing the oil on the junk heap of a car the neighbor drives the kids to school in? Yeah, lets chase that.

      8. Gamble at casinos, race tracks, etc.

      Again, I'm sure that there are some who do, but I don't see it as an epidemic among the deeply poor. That's more of a middle-class vice in my experience (as someone who has lived in deep poverty and currently is middle class).

      September 23, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
  3. I'm The Best!

    I think the government should be way more hands off than they are. People shouldn't be getting food stamps or welfare. If you need help from the government you should be given basically a dorm room that you have to share with someone else and be given ramen or rice and a multivitamin, nothing else. Just enough to keep you alive and healthy enough to get a job.

    If you're living with other people eating nothing but cheap food and you're able to work. You're going to find work quick and work hard to get out of that place as soon as you can.

    That would keep the taxes lower on the rest of society and keep those people from just living off the government.

    September 23, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • CW

      Yes, because segregating the poor into some sort of camp is the best solution to poverty.

      September 23, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • I'm The Best!

      @ CW
      It's basically that way already. If you make it more undesirable to live like that then you will have more people trying to get jobs instead of just living off of welfare. Which there are entire generations of families doing currently.

      September 23, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
    • LiberalNN

      Let's hope you never have a medical issue that prevents you from working. That would be inconvenient because you'd be in the same boat as the poor you obviously could care less about. Jerk.

      September 23, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • mw

      That sounds an awful lot like the debtors prisons that your and my ancestors came here to escape.

      September 23, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • I'm The Best!

      I just think that if you have the ability to work then you should work and not have hardworking people paying for you to live off of their money without any say in the matter. There are too many people currentlly abusing the system for it to be a good solution. Something has to be done and if the only way to do it is to make the people who abuse this lives worse at the expense of those who need it then I say it should be done.

      Even if I became one of those people I would feel better knowing that everyone in that situation had to be and wasn't just living off the people who were working.

      September 23, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • I'm The Best!

      Go ahead and tell me it's fair for someone working trying to make money is making less than someone living off the government not doing anything. I've met people who have turned down jobs simply because they are getting more from the government every week than they would be making at that new job.

      I don't care what they do with the system, but it has to be changed.

      September 23, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  4. Marcus

    Like many, I fought to keep reading once I found out "God was calling me"... luckily it went to voicemail, so I continued.

    What this author cheerfully skates past is that "poverty" here isn't like "poverty" in other places (with the exception, as Brian noted, of Indian reservations). 'Poverty' in America means 'has less than others'... not 'is starving/leprous/living without basic sanitation'. Households well below the supposed "poverty line" often have high-end electronics, expensive clothes, etc... and the people who comprise those households are often obese. In America, the death rate is many multiples higher from too much food than too little. This sort of "people are starving" rhetoric is whitewash over other problems, like poor life choices.

    September 23, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
  5. agnostrick

    There's a reason payroll taxes are not counted with income taxes when people talk about "Who pays taxes". And that is you get that money back through SS & Medicare. The only people who don't get that money back – or even more – are the rich and people who die. These programs – SS & Medicare – have always been sold to the public as retirement and social insurance, but then they get lumped in with general fund taxes when it helps get more money from the people who really do pay taxes. Not a fair comparison.

    September 23, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
  6. George

    Taking care of poor people should be the responsibility of churches not the government. The churches are local and could better monitor and provide the proper help. It would also eliminate those who are just too lazy to work or just want to work the system. Instead they spend their money on fancy buildings and other things that don't help out the needy and then preach passages out of the bible that "other" people/organizations should do what they do not. My wife and I have gotten so tried of the hypochrisy that we no longer attend church.

    September 23, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
    • Anon

      Isn't that part of why we need government's help? Call me jaded, but I doubt if government backed out that the churches would actually pick up the slack. People simply aren't compassionate and altruistic enough these days, and churches are still run by people.

      September 23, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • W247

      George –
      My church is anything but fancy, however we do have a community garden set up for people that want to work a piece of land to grow some food.

      September 23, 2011 at 2:59 pm |

    (excluding Social Security recipients, who do not pay taxes on their Social Security benefits), – Um, I have to point out this is untrue. In fact, if you have other income, Social Security may be taxed on up to 85% of your benefit.

    September 23, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
  8. cadcam

    So, many here are believe it is okay to appropriate the fruits of another persons labor and transfer it to another person. We have a name for that...slavery.

    September 23, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Then define capitalisim for me?

      September 23, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
    • Henry

      Capitalism is a more socially acceptable way of doing it.

      September 23, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
  9. Grown-up Adult

    How come when I choose NOT TO have children as it is not affordable–

    I then pay for some idiot who does not have the money to have children? Welfare, section 8, free medi-cal?
    How is it that i have a masters degree, license, and no children and if I get laid off my job I do not get free medical ins? I can not afford cobra every month on unemployment. But I fill my uterus, drop out of school if I want, no education, etc, and free medical.
    Ah, I'm not big on values, but I am on fairness- and this clearly is not fair. The stupid, irresponsible, unconscious and low standards are far out breeding the conscientious and responsible.
    Why is this idiot quoting god? I do better and I have to help the ignorant masses who are irresponsible?
    Ah hello, this American dream going into the toilet was predicted 30 years ago. Just like social security drying up now. So, people born after 1990 get to have cell phones, flat screens, new cars, lattes, and then have elder welfare from younger workers when they retire- can not work- with nothing? No need to plan ahead or be responsible- working tax payers will enable you not to be!!!!!

    September 23, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
    • Ms Kira

      Your image of people who get food stamps and medicare are biased and stereotypical... There are plenty of college students with kids who work that get food stamps and medicade for their kid.
      There are PLENTY of college students who get the same things who don't have kids but they don't work because they are in school full time...
      All people that get food stamps and medicade are not lazy people that sit at home and don't get an education or work some people simply don't get paid enough or are in a phase in their life where maybe they can't work because they are in school.
      What about a mother who just recently divorced but she is having a hard time getting by now because she only has 1 household income instead of 2 supporting her and her children? If you don't have kids then you should be able to find some kind of job as you have no other constraints on your time........

      September 23, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
    • The REAL Grown-Up Adult

      This 'idiot' is quoting God because this is the 'Belief Blog'...sounds like your the idiot...

      September 23, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
  10. Jonh MI

    I knew I would see line after line of propaganda. The government isn't stopping churches or charities from helping people out, it's just that most churches/charities are for pimping out their donors so they can give them a prayer cloth or some other useless junk, then take the rest of the money and give themselves bonus checks. This way the charities that DO help the poor are strained enough as it is. Please stop this government shouldn't try and stop poverty nonsense, because no one else gives that much of a damn.

    September 23, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
  11. Lou

    If poverty is so bad in the US, where are all the bone thin people? If anything, the poor people here are more likely to be fat. How many poor fat people do you see in Africa?

    September 23, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • William Demuth

      The Weather Girlls just finished a tour over there, so I can confidently say at least three.

      September 23, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
    • Robert

      There is actually an explanation for that. When you are poor you try to get the most calories, and fill your stomach, for your money. In the United States you can get enough calories for your family the cheapest by purchasing junk food with no or little nutritive value. The food is filling and fattening but doesn't do much otherwise. Healthy foods like fruits and vegetables are often ignored because for the money one has to spend they are much less likely to be filling than junk food.

      September 23, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
    • Grown-up Adult

      Exactly. The churches do not pay taxes and they can help "the poor"
      as the poor always believe in god but want other humans to pay for thier choices- like to have children when they can not afford it.
      I agree to cut everyone off. Not the mentally challenged or schizophrenics- and truly physically disabled- but everyone else.
      Let them love god and belong to a church that pays for them- let that loving community support them instead of me.
      This may force them to build houses for themselves, help each other threw thier church. Make them so some work besides preaching!

      September 23, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • Sloane

      That's because highly processed foods are more easily obtained, especially in places with extreme poverty because cheap fruits and vegetables are not easy bought. Also the fact that food, is in fact, racialized, as well as part of the difference between classes. Bad eating habits are part of low income communities, and being from one I am aware of that fact all too easily. Being fat or thin has nothing to do with being poor or not. It is a misconception.

      September 23, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • Ms Kira

      Grown Up you actually sound Angry at religious people.... All people that are poor are not religious people.. you just can't stop with you stereotypes..... Do you have a book of them? Stereotypes 101
      You do know that poor people pay taxes too right? Okay just checking

      September 23, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
    • W247

      Grown Up Adult ( I am assuming you are using that name loosely) –
      Have you ever belonged to an organization that cares for a body of people directly?
      Have you ever followed a pastor around during the week to see what they do? How much time that they put in above and beyond a typical 40 hour work week? Do you know that it is rare that pastor gets a full day off? Now I am talking about community pastors here. The ones that go out into the people and sit with them when they are overcoming a loss, or counsels them when they are going through difficulties.

      Did you ever work understand how a food closet works at a church? People donate food that turns around and is given out in the community? Did you ever field the numerous phone calls that come in to the church from people in the community asking for assistance? Did you ever look at your bank balance while listening to a young mom talking about feeding her 5 yo twins top ramen every night because that's all they can afford and write out a check so those babies can eat?

      BEFORE you judge your local church, walk a month in their shoes to see what they are doing to help out their community.

      September 23, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
    • Dustin

      That is because the cheapest food is usually the worst for you. I've seen too many people who would rather buy cheap, processes, calorie rich food because they can't justify the price for fresh fruit, vegetables, or meat.

      September 23, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
  12. bbrooker

    I'm sorry, but a 10% flat tax on someone making minimum wage and someone making five million a year is just not morally right in my book as it amounts to a burden on the poor person and a break for the wealthy. As for having lots of kids, are you suggesting government should control your life and the size of your family? Didn't think so. Besides since the number of children you have is statistically linked to education, unless you want to provide free college education for everyone, shut your mouth.

    September 23, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • Bill

      Why not just have a HUGE tax on wealthy people and have a list of recognized charities that they can donate to receive a 200% credit on any amount they donate to avoid the taxes? Let's say someone making 1 million a year has a 35% tax, UNLESS they donate 17.5% of their income to a government-approved charity. They will donate to avoid the 35% tax rate, and the money goes directly to the poor (or whatever cause to appease democrats) we cut out all the government bureaucracy and wasted money as well.

      September 23, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
    • William Demuth


      We already have that scam. Its called the Roman Catholic Church.

      You give them tax free donations for "the poor" and they use it to buy the butt holes of little boys.

      September 23, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
    • Bill

      I'm talking about organizations like UNICEF, Red Cross, etc. Not religious organizations.

      September 23, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
    • Patrick

      Heck why not just repeal the Reagan era tax breaks and restore taxes on the rich to 70 percent? that will solve our revenue problems. Put it to a popular vote instead of letting rich people and the special interests that pay them decide how much they pay in taxes. Seems pretty fair!

      September 23, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
  13. neverland911

    We have some of the fattest poor people I've ever seen. Nobody appears to be starving, that's for sure. Quit giving them EBT cards. You should get a monthly sack of the bare necessities, and that's all. You want to eat good, get a JOB.

    September 23, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • Alex

      You want to write WELL? Get an EDUCATION!

      September 23, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • myweightinwords

      Poor people are often obese because they are poor and cannot afford to feed themselves good food. Have you ever tried to feed a family of four on less than $100/week? Heck, I live alone and make decent money, and I have weeks where I don't have $50 to spend on food. Do you know what kind of food that buys?

      I promise you it isn't fresh fruits and vegetables or meat. It's carb heavy things like pasta and rice and bread. Things that will fill you up but provide little in the way of nutrition.

      September 23, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • Lauren

      Apples cost like $1.25 a pound. A box of pasta costs at least that, maybe more depending on the brand. It is BS to say that poor people are overweight because they can't afford healthy food. Just another example of people playing the victim – just buy the apples instead of the pasta.

      September 23, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
  14. Relictus

    The American "Lifestyle" of eating fast food and watching television is neither healthy nor sustainable. Our mental and physical health is affecting our national financial welfare. Do you think that Medicare and Medicaid would cost $1.2 Trillion dollars if 63% of the population were not sloppy fat and as ignorant as Fox News can make them? When I see the shopping cart of a SNAP participant, it's overloaded with foods that I cannot afford myself or simply would not buy. We ate our way out of prosperity, essentially.

    September 23, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
  15. bendaltex

    Make the corporations pay more taxes or bring the jobs back home. The Republikans are the ones against taxes and they support the corporations. Hmmm, wonder who's going to heaven?

    September 23, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
  16. Bill

    "I believe God is calling us..."

    Stopped reading there. Jesus people can you just do something good for the sake of doing something good? Or does God have to call everybody all the time to do stuff. I never once got a phone call from God. Not even an email newsletter.

    September 23, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
    • Relictus

      GREAT point!

      Why do people always call on God? Why not just "man up" and do the right thing, because it is the right thing?

      September 23, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
    • William Demuth

      I think God is calling me, but apparently he wont use voicemail.

      I keep seeing an area code of 970, and he is the only Palestinian I know.

      If you see him, tell him to use SKYPE next time.

      September 23, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
  17. Lou

    Over half the "poor" in America have a computer and a video game system like an XBOX. How many kids in Ethiopia are playing XBOX?

    September 23, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
    • William Demuth

      As of this second 860.

      And your point is?

      September 23, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
    • Lurie

      Say you give a poor American & a poor African $10. The poor African will spend the money on bare nesessities because no one else will provide for him. The poor American is receiving gov't assistance for base nes. thus freeing up those $10 to be spent elsewhere. There's no saying what the poor African would do if fundamental needs were met by public assistance. Very possibly it would be spent the same way as the porr American. One is not any poorer than the other, one just gets more help from someone else.

      September 23, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • Lauren

      I'd say the poor American should either save the $10 so he/she can get off government assistance someday or put the money toward food, rent, etc.

      September 23, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
  18. Brian

    If you want to see some real poverty visit an Indian reservation. For some reason our "news" media ignore this.

    September 23, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
    • William Demuth

      I just booked a room for three nights at one for $1300.00.

      And I got a free $75.00 gift card good on the crap tables, or for cheap smokes!

      September 23, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • RVT1000

      Perhaps its because they choose to stay on reservations where there is pretty much no work as opposed to moving to where the jobs actually are?

      September 23, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
  19. Gpaiva

    I started reading, than i got to "I believe God is calling us to change the politics" and stoped.

    September 23, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
    • Try READING, moron

      So you missed the big banner at the top of the screen that said "Belief Blog". The blurb at the beginning that identified the author as "Reverend"?

      September 23, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
  20. Dan

    I stopped reading this article once biblical theology was referenced.

    September 23, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
    • Snoozie

      That's too bad. Not because I love bringing theology into everything, but because the article had some good points we need to consider, regardless of the "God" factor.

      September 23, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
    • Brett

      The article is in the Belief Blog section of CNN? What do you expect?

      September 23, 2011 at 2:45 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.