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. jsco

    One thing most of the groups described here have in common is too many children. Go out and build a stable life for yourself before adding children to the mix. I never actually got around to having kids and will never add to society's burden.

    September 23, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
    • William Demuth


      I did have kids, but to me they are a part of the solution, not the problem.

      They have been educated, and are begining to be future leaders.

      Perhaps you misunderstand how much difference one person can actually make!

      September 23, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
  2. William Demuth

    Perhaps draft the poor for our invasion of Iran?

    Just send them a Bennie / Draft card, and have them on a boat before they know what hit em?

    And if we ALSO draft the old, we can reduce the Medicare and SSI deficits.

    September 23, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
  3. Jared

    When did Ghandi run and operate the greatest country in the world? If we want to live by Ghandi's moral standards we'll also have to be willing to give up having the largest economy in the world, and lowering the workers standard of life for those who will not work.

    September 23, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
    • CT

      Do you think we should live by Jesus's standards?

      September 23, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      The wealth gap has been increasing for 20 years. Stop being a sheep. The "American Dream" doesn't exist as a viable possibility for 95% of the population now.

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

      The fact of Gandhi is the quoted is an ancillary fact. There are literally hundreds of variations of this quote. If we could focus on people and not a corrupt corporate structure that is running this country economically and politically, we may be able to strive for greatness again. Look to your own party and Teddy Roosevelt, he noticed and remedied that very problem a century ago. We all need a "square deal" once again. Let's continue to give tax breaks to the corporations and the ultra-wealthy and we'll see how quickly it will "trickle down" to you and I let alone the lowest fringe of society. You worry about the BS, and I'll stick to the American ideal of striving for something better.

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

      Good mantra Sean. No point working for anything better. It's just not possible to pull yourself out of poverty, although thousands are doing it. Work hard in school. Learn a trade. I didn't come from money. I paid may way through school (yes, with low interest loans that I repaid). Worked hard, full time job since I was 14, and now have an income that Obama would like to characterize as "greedy rich." So keep on being disgusted by people who succeed. Keep telling your kids that they can't make it on their own without a government handout. It will be a self-fufilling prophecy. . .you will never have anything.

      Jump right on haters!!!

      September 23, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      @Miltonboy: So...you're a "job creator?"

      Hired anyone lately?

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

      I'm not calling myself a "job creator," although I have hired 5 or 6 people over the last 3 years. You're certainly not going to make me feel guilty for succeeding. If you don't think you can, then nobody will be able to help you.

      September 23, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      @Miltonboy: I'd venture a guess...and bet money on it...that I make more than you do. The fact is, we need a revenue increase, and we need to stop spending.

      But on defense programs, not social programs.

      When you can tell me you just saw the Pakistani First Armored Division parading down Broadway, I'll change my mind.

      Until then...STFU and come up with a solution in lieu of your whining.

      September 23, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
  4. Miltonboy

    You know a good way to get out of poverty? GET A JOB! Stop having kids you can't afford to raise!!! The government (meaning taxpayers) don't owe you anything! It's not a right!!

    September 23, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      Ok...hire someone, smarta$$.

      September 23, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
    • llmb

      Do you not know how to read? Please do not continue to display your ignorance, arrogance and cold-heartedness. It makes me ill.

      September 23, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
    • Scott

      So what are your views on contraception and abortion?

      September 23, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • Sarah

      You do know that millions of people, who already have children, were pushed into poverty by this recession, right?

      September 23, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
    • BhamGuy

      So old. You make sweep generalizations without contributing meaningful dialogue. Republican much?

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

      Scott. . .all for contraception. As for abortion, I see it as a symptom not the problem. The problem is unwanted pregnancy.

      September 23, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
  5. Jared

    Would God want his people to help those in poverty? Yes. But only by choice, and as an individual, not as a collective machine.

    September 23, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • Miltonboy

      The bible also says if you don't work, you don't eat. . .

      September 23, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
    • llmb

      Miltonboy - No. The Bible does not say that. You are not only ignorant. You are a liar.

      September 23, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
    • CT

      The bible does say that but it was about a specific person who was trying to get out of helping with chores. Paul was advising some disciples on how to deal with this specific young man.You are taking it out of context. Jesus said "What you do for the least of them you do for me." He also told the rich man to sell all he had and give it to the poor. He also said "Feed my sheep." He also told the parable of the good samaritan and said to love your neighbor. Listen to Jesus's words don't try and twist them to try and justify your hard heart.

      September 23, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
    • Larry L

      That's an interesting take on "what God would want"... So you believe God would not look favorably on a government that created programs to help the poor? I guess that's the Republican God who hates gay people, likes guns, likes the death penalty, and constantly tells crazy people to run for President.

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

      2 Thes 3:10 New International Version (©1984)

      For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: "If a man will not work, he shall not eat."

      September 23, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
  6. Yuveth

    That is the number one reason I got out of Nursing. I could not handle watching and learning how the system works. It is seriously devastating to learn that for average Americans.. you really just don't count. You fall into this obscure gray area of no return. Politics and bureaucratic b.s ..

    Thing about government is with one hand they will hand you a dollar.. but with their other hand .. it finds its way into your back pocket, gets lodged and you end up paying them about $10 for every $1 you get.. with a tax here.. and a tax there.. and all those little piggies they have just salivating and drooling all over you. Bunch of rabid dogs all fighting for control .. The only way anything will get done.. is if ordinary people.. take extraordinary steps to help one another.

    September 23, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
  7. Jared

    Poverty sucks. But lets be honest. Most people, children aside, are there because of the choices they've made. For every 1 person who deserves a hand out, there are 5 who don't, yet all 6 will get it. Handouts perpetuate poverty. How can someone possibly claim that poverty exists because rich people aren't taxed enough? There may not be a more flawed position in politics.

    September 23, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      @Jared: You said, "For every 1 person who deserves a hand out, there are 5 who don't"

      I assume you have a source for that ratio, right?

      September 23, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Well, if you want to be honest, if you let stupid people breed, don't be surprised when you get more stupid people.

      A significant percentage of those in poverty are actually fourth or fifth generation poor.

      Back in the 70's I knew MANY who lived off charity, and now almost half a century later many of their desendants still do.

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

      You really are full of yourself aren't you. You should thank god that you have a roof over your head, a belly full of food and enough of a brain to have a job. Until you've lived in THEIR shoes, you have no right to judge or comment on them.

      September 23, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
    • Jay

      I don't think you really know that poverty sucks. If you knew, like really, truly knew you wouldn't say that. The pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps is impossible if you are one of those children at the mercy of your parent(s). How do you propose those children, when they come of age, manage to turn their situations around? It isn't easy. I know because I've done it. Without your first-hand experience, tell the masses how you'd plan to turn that around for them?

      September 23, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • llmb

      Jared - are you the one who decides who "deserves" a handout and who doesn't? Let me in on your secret. How did you achieve such power and knowledge.

      September 23, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • Jared

      @seanNJ No I don't have a stat, I have eyes and brain. I also personally know over a dozen individuals collecting unemployment and using other handouts who have no business whatsoever in doing so. "Why get a job? When I can work a cash paying side job and collect unemployment?" I hear this over and over. I grew up seeing people sell food stamps for cash outside of the grocery store so they could go buy drugs and alcohol. There is zero doubt many Americans need handouts, the elderly, physically unable to work, and handicapped all qualify. The fact is its just too easy to get them. I am all for helping those who need it, but we have to find out a better way to qualify those who do and those who don't. WE CANT AFFORD TO GIVE THE 46 MILLION AMERICANS IN POVERTY 30,000 A YEAR.

      September 23, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
    • david

      children aside? they don't count because....they don't become adults, right? lol.

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

      @Jared: You saidm "No I don't have a stat, I have eyes and brain. I also personally know over a dozen individuals collecting unemployment and using other handouts who have no business whatsoever in doing so."

      So I shouldn't listen to you at all, unless your anecdotal knowledge of 0.000004% of the US population qualifies as a "acceptable sample size."

      Until you have an actual plan you'd like to share with us, I'll continue to classify you as one of the "b1tchers with no ideas."

      September 23, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      @Jared: You also said, "I grew up seeing people sell food stamps for cash outside of the grocery store so they could go buy drugs and alcohol."

      I would think you would approve of that behavior, because those greedy, lazy ne'er-do-wells clearly won't be alive as long with that lifestyle.

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

      So what do you say to the kids who make it out of poverty to go on to great things? Are they just lucky? You seem to believe such a feat is impossible, yet it happens EVERY DAY. Spend the money on education, spend it on assisting job creators, hell spend it on soup kitchens, just stop handing it out to people to do with it what they like. And for God's sake do something to verify the recipients actually need what they are getting. As I said millions of Americans need help, and I want them to get it, but throwing more money out there isn't the way to do it. Lets put the work in to better the system and assure the money we are spending goes to those who truly need it, I'm sick of seeing my buddy collect unemployment for no legitimate reason whatsoever.

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

      @Jared: You said, "I'm sick of seeing my buddy collect unemployment for no legitimate reason whatsoever."

      Well then...





      September 23, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
  8. js51

    I think the correct wording of "myth" in #5 is that 48% of the housholds do not pay federal income tax, not that they don't pay any tax at all.

    September 23, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
  9. jg1964

    If we're going to " help bring people up " often times it's at the expense of others.

    September 23, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
  10. Benjamin

    Now this is a belief blog post that an atheist can get behind.

    September 23, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
    • Sarah

      I had the same thoughts.

      September 23, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
  11. 2tired2care

    It's much easier to either turn a blind eye to the problem or even worse, call the poor lazy.

    September 23, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
  12. Jay

    Fix the problem upstream. Stop questioning each other about the pile of dead fish downstream. If you did your part as human beings this issue would be swept under a rug. I doubt you all know what days of hunger and nights of cold feels like to a kid stuck in the web of assistance like I do. Worst 19 years of my life... I'd trade it all for some kid experiencing that right now. It changes you as a person to come out of that: I wish everyone had a month of that kind of hell to learn a little humility.

    September 23, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
  13. erich2112x

    I do't even consider myself middle class, but I have a 52 inch Sony HD and I can still get my family over to the lake for a vacation every so often. And I don't care how the rich live, I don't think about them it's not my business. I just work for them. and when my kids are old enough for college, I'll show them how to get those Pell grants. That's how I did it.

    September 23, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
    • FWIndy

      Not sure when you went to college, but qualifying for Pell grants today requires you to fill out a FAFSA which has to be backed by your federal tax return. Then it depends on the cost of the college. With a maximum of $5500 per year, that's not even going to pay even half at most state universities. We actually are slightly above the new national median income and I'm dreading my computer and TV dying at the same time. Do people make destructive choices? Yes. Do $8 retail jobs with no or little health insurance give you a middle class life? No. And I know a lot of people who work very hard at very low wage jobs. When the local economic development types trumpet their latest coupe – factory jobs paying $8 – $10 – I can be sure they go back to their $100K+ jobs confident that they've delivered people into the middle class. Really

      September 23, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
  14. 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 4:03 pm |
    • 2tired2care

      I agree. Truly do some good and pick your donations wisely.

      September 23, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
    • .........

      spam alert hit report abuse on all reality postings

      September 23, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
  15. robert boose

    we need to help people who need help but we have to get the coruption and politcs out so we do not make permanet slaves out of them and keep them in poverty forever

    September 23, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
  16. morgan

    effectively close our boarders and most of this goes away

    September 23, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
    • Nonimus

      Do you have any basis for this position?

      September 23, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Especially if you make the border the Mason Dixon line!

      September 23, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
    • Noah Juan

      effectively close our eyes and most of this goes away

      September 23, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
    • david

      hahahahahaha! So when all the $20 a day jobs open up, those americans in poverty can take them and get rich!

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

      Morgan just has to close his myopic eyes and poverty, and whatever else may be wrong is just majically "gone".

      September 23, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
  17. ArchiedeBunker

    Googling "USA BUDGET" is like asking the fox in the hen-house what happend to the chickens. There are more ways to hide government waste in the budget numbers we see than there are numbers. The governement started giving away money to those who won't work in 1964, under LBJ's "WAR ON PROSPERITY" program. Ever since then, the rate of poverty in the U. S. has gone up – not down. Back then, the weepy-eyed types (like the guy who wrote this article) did their best to convince us that those poor folks just couldn't get a job! During the next 20 years, the jobs they could have had were quietly taken by illegal immigrants. LBJ's nut cases said "Oh, but those jobs are so poor paying, nobody will take them." They were so poor paying that Illigeal Immigrant families could only afford one big shiny $30,000 pickup, and were only able to send about $500,000,000 a year in cash back to Mexico! Get it straight – there has never been and never will be a Welfare Program that genuinely helped the poor – and every one of them ends up creating more poor people. Socialism is EVIL! No society has ever prospered when it's economic system was dominated, as ours is, by a huge, self-perpetuating, high-taxing oppressive, stifling government. If we REALLY want to decrease poverty, lets go back to the things which actually DO decrease poverty – CAPITALISM and FREE ENTERPRISE!

    Most of the existing poverty in the United States is elective. If you trace backward from any poor person you can find now, you will almost always find a string of poor choices – usually starting with the failure to take advantage of the opportunity to get an education, and the unwillingness to live within their means.

    September 23, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
    • Salmander

      Wow! Where did you get your "facts"? You repeat unsubstantiated, anecdotal evidence as fact, because you have been taught this nonsense your whole life. Regan’s Welfare Cadillac Queen did not exist. She was the invention of his speech writer. Most poor people are not poor because of choice! Some may have made a mistake or two, but unlike you they only get one shot at it.
      Most Scandinavian countries have a higher standard of living, more vacation time, and are continually ranked as having the happiest populations in the world. They are socialist!
      The problem with a pure capitalist society and a true free market is, the top people are only in it for short term gain. Make as much money as you can until the system falls apart and leave the bill for the "little people". The housing crisis and the collapse of the economy are directly due to the fact the mortgage backed securities market is NOT regulated. With no safeguards in place the perpetrators don't stop when it is prudent to do so. Even Alan Greenspan said he was amazed at they continued even though it when they knew it was going to crash.
      Too many people in this country believe that we are the greatest nation on earth just because we say so. we are so stubborn as a people that we are only one of two countries that don't use the metric system (the other being Myanmar). And don’t tell me I hate America, because I don’t. I hate the idiots who believe legends, myths and rumors as fact.

      September 23, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
  18. Zach

    You didn't show that #4 is a myth. You just made a weak emotional appeal.

    September 23, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
  19. dinabq

    When a person works but has to use food stamps or is on medicad to get by, isn't that a government subsidy to companies that don't pay their workers a living wage? And what about the concentration of wealth upwards? Many are complaining about the poor having a cell phone or flat screen TV. What about someone making over a billion dollars a year with several homes, cars, jets or yachts? I guess some people can never have enough, and they need even more tax breaks.

    How do Americans get to be "too big to fail" so we can get the government to bail us out after we make bad bets gambling on the stock market? I also noticed that when companies fail, it's the workers that get shafted while the CEO often come out ahead. Why don't we complain about this?

    September 23, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • Gturner

      "A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members" – Gandhi. Our current greatness barometer is dangerously low. We are teetering on the precipice of becoming a sociopathic society if we aren't for the most part already. Watching the fervor of the tea party and self-proclaimed Christians makes me fear for this and future generations of Americans. We are losing our soul.

      September 23, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
  20. Yuveth

    When I worked in Nursing.. home health to be specific.. I witnessed something I can never.. unsee. It will stick with me until I die.. a family that I was working with .. were so extremely poor.. that in their kitchen, strung up over the sink.. skinned .. and they were preparing to cook them... were rats. This was in the U.S. I took care of elderly people who had to decide whether they were going to eat or buy their pills .. Veterans who did not have the insurance to take care of their problems... People not getting treated for serious health issues .. because they could not afford the insurance.. when I hear that the senators are making over $200,000 a year plus benefits plus a big plushy retirement.. all paid for via the taxpayer.. I am seriously ticked.. This .. is unacceptable.... unacceptable .. unacceptable.

    September 23, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • dinabq

      After 25 years of work, I am now collecting SSD. I have no health insurance (I have to wait 2 yrs. to be eligible for medicad) and I can't get health insurance because I've been physically disabled from birth and, therefore, have a preexisting condition. Once a person has health problems, trying to get private health insurance is impossible.

      September 23, 2011 at 4:02 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.