Why is it very hard to erase poverty?

The United States of America, as the world’s largest economy apparently has its nearly 150 million people considered “low income” or “poor”. Michael Zweig, Professor of UMich and Director of social class study, define poverty as a state of deprivation or lack of the usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions. Indeed, in November 2012 the US Census Bureau stated that more than 16% of the US population, that is 46 million people lived in poverty, which is 2% higher than in 2009. A 2013 UNICEF report even ranked the US as having the second highest child poverty rates in the developed world. While we see great buildings in San Francisco, 1.2 million of public school students out there are currently homeless. While we might be busy deciding which restaurant to go on a Friday night, millions of these people are skipping meals, feeling physical pain, and trying to avoid getting beaten up on the street or even by their loved ones.


Although there have been many actions from government and individuals to fight poverty, it seem impossible to fully erase poverty. As Ronald Reagan famously said, “We fought a war on poverty and poverty won.” According to an article in New York Times, in 2012 itself, government has been generously spent almost $1 trillion programs to alleviate poverty. This  amount equals to $20,610 for every poor person in America. Imagine how we could transfer this cash payment to instantly lift every poor people to middle class. In April, Michael D. Tanner, a senior researcher at Cato Institute, found that the 126 federal programs for low-income Americans – from Medicaid, Pell Grants, Food Stamps – together spent $668 billion of taxpayer money every single year (MacDougal). Thus, the question is : How come the US have spent so much yet combat so little of poverty?


The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) set poverty line variously depend on the states people live. On average, the poverty level for 2014 was set at $23,850 of annual income for a family of four, or $1.25 a day for a person. Another way to look at poverty is through finding the consumer spending.In 2008, the poorest Americans spent  $12,955 per person while the richest spent $26,644. The Bureau of Labor Statistics said that most Americans will spend at least one year below the poverty line between the age of 25 and 75. Relative poverty is also a useful measure of comparing society’s standard of living; which is highly related to the income inequality. This explains why relative poverty rate is higher in big cities, compared to the suburb areas. The 5% of the richest people in US has % of the nation’s wealth, while the poor has … (..).


While government has done many efforts and has been generous in alleviating poverty, this little result might pointed to the inefficiency of government bureaucracy. Perhaps the vast majority of current programs lead to make poverty more comfortable – giving poor people food, shelter, health care, etc. – rather than equipping people with tools that help them overcome poverty. And as these people do not rise out of poverty, their children would most likely not as well.


Some program that supposed to help the poor’s health tend to support out-of-wedlock birth. According to researchers from the George Washington University in 2010, almost half of all births in the United States were paid by Medicaid, “Medicaid was responsible for 48% of the 3.8 million births in 2010, an increase of 90,000 births from 2008, which was an 8% increase during that period” (Pavlich). The problem is people who enroll in Medicaid are people who could not even finance themselves, yet they are still adding another dependent human being. Today, 41 percent of Americans are born from single-mother; with 70 percent of African-Americans children are born from single mothers. This number corresponds to a research by the Heritage Foundation that 71 percent of poor families with children are headed by single parents (Pavlich).


Tax policy actually plays an important role in combating poverty.  A study comparing tax rates and countries’ poverty lines states that the lower the tax percentage, the lower the poverty rate is (Brooks).  For example, New Hampshire has a very low tax rate (46th among all states), and it has the lowest poverty quota of any state in the US. While it is true that the progressive tax rates in the US serves a transfer payment from the rich to pay higher tax rate to the poor, and that the poor do not pay much in income tax; however the current tax policy actually makes the low earners pay many share of their income.

While government has installed programs to aid students, each poor individual are still facing difficulty in finishing a good education. Education and level of income has a serious relationship.  In 2007, the median earnings of household headed by individuals with 9th grade education was $20,805 compared to the holder of bachelor’s degree that earned $77,605. Unfortunately, people who are poor would work to finance their needs; some of them even need to support their family; going to college is like having an opportunity cost of losing the money they could have earned. Thus, most poor students are either perform poorly in school or even abandon their education.


To complicate things further, in reality, the difficulty of getting a degree is only the beginning problem of finding a job. Although graduated from a four-year university, graduates are difficult to get a job. Indeed, 16% of adults age 18-29 are out of work (Heiser), with half of the population who make $9 or less an hour are at least 25 years old. The New York Times even brought up that 41% of today’s low-wage workers have at least some college education (Greenhouse). The Heritage Foundation blame the high number of illegal immigration for the increasing job competition among low wage earners (Rector). Perhaps, instead of encouraging people to get a degree, a strong vocational program is what the low-income people need. Government could also cooperate with employer to fund labor trainings. This way, at least poor students do not have to struggle four years in balancing work and education.


Trying to eliminate poverty is like trying to clean an ocean. Indeed, I believe we would not able to completely make everyone lives above poverty line, but we should do the best that we can to minimize the amount of these people suffering financially. America has 46 million of its population struggling to live by paychecks to paychecks; the World has 1.4 billion people tried to survive day-by-day. Just like Einstein said that insanity is doing the same effort over and over again and expecting different outcome, throwing more money and creating more and more government programs would not result in significant poverty reducal. Indeed, government and individuals have been kind and generous but it is time to practice a different strategy.

“Fundamentally, poverty is a denial of choices and opportunities, a violation of human dignity. It means lack of basic capacity to participate effectively in society. It means not having enough to feed and cloth a family, not having a school or clinic to go to, not having the land on which

to grow one’s food or a job to earn one’s living, not having access to credit. It means insecurity, powerlessness and exclusion of individuals, households and communities. It means susceptibility to violence, and it often implies living on marginal or fragile environments, without access to clean water or sanitation”

(UN Statement, June 1998 – signed by the heads of all UN agencies)





Greenhouse, Steven. Low-Wage Workers are Finding Poverty Harder to Escape. New York Times. 16 March. 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/17/business/economy/low-wage-workers-finding-its-easier-to-fall-into-poverty-and-harder-to-get-out.html?_r=0&gt;


Heiser, Tommy. Inefficient government spending leads US astray. The Daily Illini. 29 Jan. 2013. Web. <http://www.dailyillini.com/opinion/columns/article_2b65e764-69cb-11e2-bb97-001a4bcf6878.html&gt;


MacDougal, Gary. The Wrong Way to Help the Poor. New York Times. 10 Oct. 2012. Web. <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/11/opinion/americas-ineffective-antipoverty-effort.html?_r=0&gt;


Pavlich, Katie.  Medicaid Picking Up the Tab for Out-of-Wedlock Childbirth. Sep 09. 2013. Web. <http://townhall.com/tipsheet/katiepavlich/2013/09/09/medicaid-picking-up-the-tab-for-outofwedlock-childbirth-n1694715&gt;


Rector, Robert. Importing Poverty: Immigrating and Poverty in the United States. The Heritage Foundation. 25 Oct. 2006. Web. <http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2006/10/importing-poverty-immigration-and-poverty-in-the-united-states-a-book-of-charts&gt;

Tanner, Michael. War on Poverty at 50. 8 Jan. 2014. Web. <http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2014/01/08/war-on-poverty-at-50-despite-trillions-spent-poverty-won/>



Zweig, Michael. “What Class Got to do with it”. <http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1011&context=books>


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