People Living in Poverty
Personal, family, and community wealth provides the means for healthy, secure lives. That includes good-paying, fulfilling jobs and careers and financial security that extends across the lifespan. In 2020, more than 37.2 million people lived in economic poverty, or 11.4% of the total population. Economic poverty is a pervasive problem affecting health by limiting access to proper nutrition and healthy foods, education opportunities, safe neighborhoods, and even clean air and water, among other elements vital to well-being. Poverty has increased, with more than 3.3 million people becoming economically poor in 2019, contributing to a national rise from 10.5%—the official first increase in poverty after five consecutive annual declines. Poverty and low-income status in the U.S. are associated with various adverse health outcomes, including higher infant mortality, shorter life expectancy, and higher death rates among adults. Poverty costs the economy; experts argue that child poverty in the U.S. costs more than $500 billion annually in higher criminal expenditures, increased healthcare costs, and lost productivity. People living in poverty also have limited access to healthcare services when they need them most.
Economic poverty is propelled by inflation, poor education, income inequality, and incarceration rates. In the 1950s, more than 22% of Americans were in economic poverty. This rate declined by the 1970s, reaching a low of 11.1%; however, it rose in 1983, 1993, and 2011, up to nearly 15%. The highest number of people living in poverty in the U.S. ever recorded was in 2014, with 46.7 million people living in economic poverty. Additionally, “deep poverty”—living in a household with a total cash income below 50 percent of its poverty threshold—has become a significant chronic condition that persists over generations. In 2016, more than 18 million people lived in deep economic poverty, causing persistent challenges related to education, development, and healthcare access. With the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic pending, currently, the level of economic poverty has peeked to 17.3 in August 2020. BIPOC and people with physical or mental disabilities are more likely to experience poverty, and people in poverty are also more likely to experience discrimination, stigmatization, and abuse. Economic poverty is still a significant issue following increasing inflation, unemployment, income inequality, and poor education. Physically challenged individuals living in poverty, immigrants, homeless individuals, indigenous, black and brown folks, and LGBTQ+ folks suffer a higher impact of poverty due to compound marginalization.
Many factors contribute to poverty in the U.S., including inadequate employment opportunities among young adults, weather/climate change, and increased social injustices like racism and gender discrimination, inadequate government support, lack of access to high-quality healthcare, and high cost of living. Reducing poverty in the U.S. will require increased worker power to rebalance the labor market and boost economic mobility and individual well-being. The U.S. has made significant strides in poverty reduction since the 1960s, facilitated by decades of substantial investments in social security, nutrition assistance, unemployment reduction, low-income tax credits, and anti-poverty programs. Today, we face new challenges as a Nation. Stakeholders should consider policies that increase the minimum wage, create good-paying employment and job-training opportunities, increase child and earned income tax credits, increase access to affordable housing, childcare, and healthcare, and reform the criminal justice system to support successful reentry.