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. Nate

    Why is this man quoting from a book of myths written many 100s of years ago?

    September 23, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
    • layo

      If people still quote Socrates, Pluto hell even old wives proverbs like – "all that glitters is not gold" why can't he quote from any book he chooses

      September 23, 2011 at 3:38 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 4:06 pm |
  2. Kathy Callies

    I am also mindful of how many people are one paycheck, one cutback away from poverty. It is a sobering and staggering reality in our country today. 19% of our children are in poverty in South Dakota (my home state) that nearly 1 in 5 kids who grow up in poverty. I think we could do better; I pledge to try.

    September 23, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
  3. Patrick

    I don't feel sorry for people who create a family they can't afford. I don't feel sorry for people who fail to graduate from high school which easily places them in poverty. I don't feel sorry for their social economic condition because being in that position affords them education programs I wasn't eligible to have and yet if I wanted my college education I had to pay for it out of my own pocket. I worked two jobs 80/hrs a week during the summers and one job during the school year as a garbage collector, on the back of a drilling rig for water wells, land surveyor, drug store clerk, floor maintenance etc. Due to a lack of funds it took me 7 years to complete my BA degree from The Ohio State University. The greatest gift we have in this country is the ability to pursue our dreams if we keep our eye on the ball regardless of the excuses that surround us.

    September 23, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
    • Money101

      DITTO!!!! I'm so with you on that!!!

      Quit having kids you can't afford and stop expecting everyone else to feel sorry and pay for them!!!

      September 23, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
    • layo

      Patrick, your position is yours but your bitterness is just distasteful.
      You don't feel sorry for people who have families they can't afford-With people going almost 2+ years unemployed do see how your logic fails you? If I held a job prior to 2008 and got laid off when the recession hit and I'm still not working (or working some dead end job) how is that my fault?

      You don't feel sorry for people who don't graduate (high school or otherwise)- Kids already in poverty end up in the worst end of the public school system where if a kid had a special need- would probably go unnoticed. Yes there are kids who drop out without regard for the consequence of doing so, but not everyone who dropped out was that way.

      Congrats to you for pulling yourself by the bootstrap but if you think real hard- you were never an island ie. someone did a little good for you somewhere, somehow.

      too paid my way through college and have worked a couple of dead end jobs (sometime 3 at a time just to keep up with bills) but I know that life is not black and white.

      I guess people like you will not understand until they get knocked down on life through no fault of theirs.
      And oh- being bitter is a poison that slowly kills so let it go.

      September 23, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
    • Patrick


      I appreciate your position, however I have been knocked down; laid off and fired more than once and always manage to land on my feet. Immigrants come here with nothing and manage quite well; meaning they live within their means. American's tend to be impulsive – have to have it now, finance themselves into a terrible debt crises, tend to buy homes they can't afford or based on two incomes rather than one, rack up credit card debt, don't save for retirement because having the latest I-Phone with a data plan plus the NFL ticket is more important that taking that money and putting it away. I'm saying the many, not all completely bring this pain upon themselves. Even in some of the worst public school systems you'll read about kids who rise above because they have the character to do so. Please take a moment to read this article published by The New York Times Magazine; it's a real eye opener – “What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?” http://tinyurl.com/3vuossb
      Thank you for your reply and have a great weekend ahead.

      September 23, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
  4. Brian

    The comments about fancy cars and cell phones hearken back to the myth of the "welfare queen" propagated by the great liar Ronald Reagan. That myth shaped American reality for a lot of naive people, but the welfare queen never existed. Look in the streets at the growing ranks of the homeless if you think poverty doesn't exist in the United State. Our government, especially the Republicans, are engaged in a systematic effort to put more and more money in the hands of fewer and fewer people.

    September 23, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Don't be silly. I personally know a family with six people in it, none of which has EVER had a job I am aware of, and I have known of them for half a century.

      There used to be eight, but two overdosed and died. Unluckily, the girl breeds like a rat, so they seem to make faster than they kill them.

      September 23, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
    • jman

      Sorry Brian. My mother is a social worker and I don't live in the best area of town. I see welfare queens everyday. Almost everytime I'm standing in line at the grocery store listening to the debate about whether velveta cheese is considered food. Apparently EBT and the state don't think it's covered. Typically the lady arguing with the cashier while simultanously carrying on conversation on her bling bluetooth headset (that I couldn't afford) with baby's daddy over child support. sorry if that's not a welfare queen I'm not really sure what is. I make too much money to get an EBT card but not enough to afford the latest iphone with bluetooth apparently.

      September 23, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
    • Keith

      Dude, I have seen the welfare queens. I used to live among them. I spent many years living on nearly nothing. I can't count the number of times I've been the checkout line at the grocery store, and I'm getting a box of cornflakes and a pound of the lowest-quality, fattiest hamburger, because that's all I can afford. And in line in front of me there's some huge-butted woman wearing fake leopardskin stretch pants and about 12 pounds of cheap gold-plated jewelry, and she's got two carts full of big steaks and ice cream and cases of beer and she's paying for it with food stamps. I was making less than minimum wage at one point and I was denied food stamps because I was honest on my application – it had questions about how much money my father and mother made, and the food stamp office refused me because they said I should ask my parents for money instead of trying to get food stampe.

      September 23, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
    • tor

      I really think you guys are having the wrong argument. We can get mad about welfare queens and argue how many there are, but at the end of the day, this is a teeny tiny part of our economic problems. A much bigger problem is corrupt corporate dealings that destabilize markets and undermine essential economic pillars. The “welfare queen,” however true or not, is a ploy to keep you distracted and mad at the wrong people.

      September 23, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
    • thatsy

      Ok, chill on the " welfare queen" stereotypes, because I too, have seen the queens amongst the grocery crowd but they don't all have the same generalized appearance (ghetto black females with shiny items) that some of you are talking about.
      I agree it was a scheme thought up to demonize the same system that so many current day republicans are trying to do away with, they really have not agreed with it since the "New Deal" was created by Roosevelt, most recently called "Ponzi Schemes" . Welfare as with all systems of help are used to help people in need but there are always scammers of every race, religion, and class. I have seen just as many "welfare queens" or "baby factories" etc. of other races as I have the race everyone is referring to, but are reluctant to say. Right now no one, rich or poor, educated or not, is safe from ruin, count your blessings, be thankful for what you have and the fact that you are not in need of government assistance programs, pray for those less fortunate than yourself, teach those willing to learn how you are able to sustain. Change the world one person at a time. If everyone would love the next man as he loves himself, perhaps no one would need government assistance programs. Judge Not.

      September 23, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
  5. smc

    Republicans love to blubber the "Fifty percent of all Americans do not pay taxes" line. Problem is, the real number is actually around 47% – so, before you even get to the other detailed issues with that statistic mentioned in this article and elsewhere, Republicans have already created a rounding error that equates to roughly 10 MILLION people. That is how out of touch with reality they are.

    September 23, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
    • KJC

      So you think that if they said 47% of people don't pay taxes, it would change their point? I am not even a Republican and disagree with most of what is being said by them these days, but as a mathematically inclined person, I think the only way to accept your comment as even somewhat valid is to assume you were being sarcastic?

      September 23, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
  6. f

    1) & 2) Yes poverty exists in America at it does in every country. It has always existed in the USA but wasn't tracked until 1959. You think the people in the 1920s, 30s, 40s had it any better than now? They just made do with what they had, and worked their a&&es off to keep afloat and have a life. Now everybody (even homeless and poor people) expect iPhones.
    3)I fyou are an adult and you are only making $14,00/yr yu are NOT and adult. Take chagrge of your own situation and get a 2nd job making another $14,000/yr. If you and your spouse does it, suddenly you have $48,000/yr and you are SMACK in the middle of the wage zone of the average American. 4 jobs between 2 people sucks ! I know. My wife and I did it for years until we got good day jobs and now we can work 2 jobs. Nobody said it would be easy . See #1 & #2.
    4) Stop relying on the govt for so much. Find charities and make your own situation better. Collect cans in your off time. Even drunk and stoned homeless people on the streets in NYC collect cans for a living. Why not you? If you are that broke, another $10-$20 /week should mean alot to you.
    5) Everyone should pay some taxes, as long as you report income. If you DO NOT pay taxes, you feel like someone else should be paying for your support and you lose incentive to work more and harder. I don't mind supporting people with food stamps but at least make an effort to chip in for the benefit of all. After all, "No matter what you think right now, there are people worse of than you", as my mom used to say.

    September 23, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
  7. Johm

    I know it's been said, but I would gladly be taxed a couple more dollars for paycheck if they would drug test each applicant. It won't make a big difference to some parts of the country, but in Memphis the difference would be more than substantial.

    September 23, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
    • Pete

      And Alcohol, cigarettes and junk food!

      September 23, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • f

      I hear Memphis is pretty bad like that. I think NYC has you beat though. My wife teaches many of the kids of these families in Queens.

      September 23, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
  8. P Sullivan

    Let them eat cake

    September 23, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
    • f

      They buy their own cake with food stamps.

      September 23, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
  9. Nate

    Guess what Libs. Your version of God is a myth too.

    September 23, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
  10. observer

    To the believer:

    Of the parables that the Lord mentioned,

    Are we like the Rich young ruler ?or
    Are we like the poor widow?

    September 23, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
  11. JOE

    Yes, poverty in America may matter to Americans but it depends on the Americans you speak to. For example, CNN's Roland Martin wrote an article a few days ago explaining that most of the poor states in America are the Red Southern states, yet these states vote overwhelmingly Republican in every election. So why would the GOP and the Tea Party care about the economic standing? Regardless of what the GOP does in Washington, these Southerners still vote for them overwhelmingly. So why is that? Maybe it's because as former confederate states, these offsprings of the confederacy are still alienated over the civil war and the fact that slavery no longer exist in America. And maybe that's why they hate our first African-American president. They'd rather remain poor than vote Democrat and improve the lives of their children and have a brighter future.

    September 23, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
    • f

      Joe, Joe , Joe. Don't forget our President is half white. Obama likes to forget that too.

      September 23, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
    • Fred

      Obama isn't BLACK. He is half WHITE half BLACK. Stop calling him BLACK

      September 23, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
    • Ken

      Last time I checked all of our cities with major financal problems have been run by Democrats for decades. If they can't handle a city/county budget why should we think they can do better at the state or federal levels?

      September 23, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
  12. Mike

    Let me get this straight. We started a free trade market where our country was amounst the few who had safety,environmental,and human rights laws. Then we gave tax cuts to companies that wanted to opt out of America. We then started cutting funds to education. Then we incacted tax cuts for the rich on a yearly basis. Now the government is broke and so are we! How could a genius plan like that fail? Other countries have loyalty and buy far less imports than we do. duh! We don't have to wait for Congress to act, just make a conscience effort to buy local.

    September 23, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
  13. dasnd12

    If i wanted to read an article about what you think God is calling us to do...i would have went to a religious web site not cnn.

    September 23, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
    • W247

      Psst.. look at the banner up top "BELIEF NET" – which is the religious blog on CNN. Try a different link my friend ....

      September 23, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
    • ARMYofONE

      I was thinking the same thing.

      Thanks CNN for this junk. Now the whole article and numbers are suspect

      September 23, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
    • thatsy

      There is truth to what is being said in the article, if there are religious issues that you don't like, take the fish and leave the bones. While this is not a religious webste (actually since religion is a man made idea, it kinda could be) God asks of his people to acknowledge Him in all of our ways, so he is doing what is required of him, and i say "GOOD JOB".

      September 23, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
  14. tor

    Perhaps it good to keep in mind also that our economy didn’t go over a cliff because poor people were cheating the system. It went over the cliff because rich people were cheating the system. Remember? Lehman Brothers, Bear Sterns, Merrill Lynch. Wake up, America! It’s easy to get mad at poor people and their “fancy phones.” But the people who really screwed over this country are still today living in mansions and driving beemers. And it all ultimately came out of your 401(K).

    September 23, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
    • Spot On..!!

      Spot on..!

      September 23, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
  15. Yuveth

    Finally... some truth trickles out ..

    September 23, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
  16. Xman

    But according to Conservatives, the rich have the God-given right to make as much money as they can without regard to paying increased taxes to help the overall communities in which they live. The gap between rich and poor is an acceptable outcome of the society we live in and the system we perpetuate through ignorance and selfishness. It is no wonder this party (GOP) has failed.

    September 23, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
    • Ken

      Every year I receive an income tax return that is larger than the money I paid into federal taxes. What this means is they are taking money(taxes) from someone else and giving it to me. I keep hearing how we need to raise taxes on the rich while I'm not paying anything and actually taking money from someone that is. Reaching into someone elses pocket and taking their money is wrong. Why is it different when the government does it. The rich are paying, I'm not, how is making them pay more fair?

      September 23, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
  17. Mike

    The reason so many poor people are fat is because cheap food is not very nutritious.

    September 23, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
    • andres

      Mike, are you that ill informed? Extreme starvation produces large stomachs. The distribution of fatness is likely the same across all income ranges. The problem is often simply not knowing which choices to make and sometimes it is simply genetics.

      September 23, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
    • SciFiChickie

      Sooo true just can't afford to eat Healthy...

      September 23, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
  18. Nonimus

    What does everyone think of the Fair Tax? (http://www.fairtax.org/site/PageServer?pagename=about_main)

    September 23, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • Jim

      It has problems.

      While it technically could allow for the abolition of the IRS it would require an organization to collect the funds.

      The wealthy can get around it easily by making all purchases that would result in a tax greater than the cost of a plane ticket outside the U.S. You could try to tax goods brought into the country to make up for it but it would result in an organization that makes the IRS look efficient and it still would catch everyone.

      Despite refunding tax on necessities it would still disproportionately affect the poor as what we tend to think of as necessities are rather limited (a car for example is a necessity to find employment in many places but is not widely considered a necessity by the general population).

      It sounds really good on the surface but that is only because we tend to compare everything good and bad in the current system to everything good in a proposed system. The tax code does need reforming but I don't think a national sales tax is the way to go.

      September 23, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
    • Lorena

      sounds like libertarian drivel!

      September 23, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • Nonimus

      Excellent points!
      Although I think the collection of the tax would be very similar to the current state sales tax systems and therefor not much of an issue, I think your example of comparing the amount of tax to the cost of a plane ticket is very interesting.
      You may be right about the "prebate" scenario still being more burdensome on the poor, although I think that would be an easily adjustable amount and like Earned Income Credits it could amount to income for deeply poor.

      I find the Fair Tax a very interesting concept, but my biggest concern would be enforcement. With a 27% Federal Sales tax, give or take a few points, on new goods and services, the incentive for finding ways around it would be fairly large. (perhaps this is what you meant by collection organization?)

      September 23, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
  19. Jason

    There are a place for such programs, yes. My family and I received SNAP and Medicaid when we both worked, but made very little. We were able to use those benefits when I left to finish college, and without them it would not have been possible where we were located. Now I'm in a high tax bracket and have paid that investment back many times over. Had I not finished school, we'd still be dragging along receiving benefits (which I hated having to accept). So a "hand up" program could be quite useful to the American economy.

    September 23, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Actually your posting has reminded me of an idea.

      Perhaps REQUIRE them to pay it back? That paired with a lifetime cap might stop some of the game playing.

      I am torn with these programs because MANY do play games.

      Off the books jobs while on UI is the most prevalent right now.

      I know three college kids that have collected for well over a year while running a PC repair gig out of their dorm room.

      September 23, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
    • Pam


      I am in the same boat as you. When I got divorced I went back to school and worked full-time, making $11 an hour. I had affordable healthcare, sick time, vacation time, and it was a decent job, but I struggled to make ends meet being a single mother. I took advantage of the earned income credit, my children had free lunches, and I lived in subsidized housing (I still paid $700/month for rent). I struggled, but I got through college and am now a scientist making 3 times what I made without my degree. I have a friend who is now an attorney who works for a non-profit company. Both of our families benefited and now we are not robbing Peter to pay Paul. We didn't abuse the services we recieved and we have more than made up for it in the amount of taxes we pay annually. I am all for a hand up, just not a hand out. How about restricting how many years you can take advantage of earned income credit, or some of the programs.

      September 23, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
    • P Sullivan

      I'm going back to school for nursing because customer service call centers have been sent over seas.Go ahead. Call any utilities or credit cards and ask what country you're calling. Either I could settle for 3 minimum wage jobs to get by or I could accept help for one year to finish school as an RN and be a productive member of society again. I have no problem accepting help right now. You shouldn't feel bad either. That's what it's there for.

      September 23, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
  20. Just Dropped In

    Social Security recipients DO have to pay federal income tax on their benefits.

    September 23, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
    • Nonimus

      "Some people have to pay federal income taxes on their Social Security benefits. This usually happens only if you have other substantial income (such as wages, self-employment, interest, dividends and other taxable income that must be reported on your tax return) in addition to your benefits."

      September 23, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
    • Terry Davis

      Social Security recipients have to pay taxes on their benefits only if their income from other sources exceeds a certain amount. If you are living on SS benefits alone, you almost surely will not have to pay federal income tax on them

      September 23, 2011 at 3:10 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.