Identifying the causes and effects of poverty is surprisingly difficult. While there are many theories as to what causes poverty, there is no specific list of criteria to definitely indicate a person will be poor. The effects of poverty are hard to identify simply because they may also be influenced by factors ranging from cultural upbringing to racial discrimination.
In 2011, the official federal poverty guidelines for people living in the 48 contiguous states and D.C. were as follows:
- 1 person - $10,890
- 2 people - $14,710
- 3 people - $18,530
- 4 people - $22,350
- 5 people - $26,170
- 6 people - $29,990
- 7 people - $33,810
- 8 people - $37,630
- add $3,820 in annual income for each additional person in the household
It is worth pointing out poverty in the United States is not the same as poverty in other parts of the world. Even people living at the poverty line in the United States typically have access to electricity, running water, and indoor plumbing. Many even have televisions, cell phones, computers, and other luxury items that are unheard of among people with low income in other parts of the world. The hardships faced by people living in poverty in the United States are often related to broader issues such as affordable housing, access to medical care, daycare costs for minor children, and retirement savings.
Characteristics of People Living in Poverty
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides an interesting look at the possible causes of poverty, since eligibility criteria for the program is based partially on the federal poverty guidelines. During the 2009 fiscal year, 86% of all SNAP recipients lived in poverty and 42% had a gross income that was less than half the poverty guideline for their household size.
Food stamp program participation statistics reveal that children are more likely than people of any other age group to live in poverty. The US Department of Health and Human Services reports that 48% of SNAP recipients were children during the 2009 fiscal year. Only 8% of SNAP recipients were people ages 60 or over.
Among adults, gender is a risk factor for living in poverty. Approximately 65% of working age adults receiving SNAP benefits were women. However, this appears to be primarily due to the fact that women are more likely to be heading single-parent households.
It is a common misconception that people who are employed do not live in poverty. More than 40% of all SNAP participants lived in a household with income earned from employment during 2009. In households that included a married couple with children, 60% had earned income.
Public Opinion on the Causes of Poverty
The public's opinion the causes of poverty is divided. Some people attribute to the problems of the poor to broader social circumstances, while others feel that poverty is caused by personal characteristics.
A study conducted by NPR, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government revealed the following as the top factors the American public considers to be responsible for high poverty rates in the country:
- Drug abuse
- Medical bills
- Part-time or low-wage jobs
- Single-parent families
- A shortage of jobs
- Too many immigrants
- The current welfare system
- Poor people lacking motivation
- A decline in moral values
- Poor quality public schools
Effects of Poverty
Regardless of what causes people to be poor, living in poverty seems to have lasting effects. Consider the following:
- Children raised in poverty are more likely to attend poorly-funded public schools that leave them less prepared for postsecondary education.
- Asthma is more common among poor children, which researchers believe is a result of living in buildings with inadequate ventilation systems.
- Teen girls who live in poverty have a pregnancy rate that is nearly five times higher than that of their more affluent peers.
- Adults who are living in poverty often suffer from obesity because it is hard to afford a nutritious diet even with the assistance of food stamp benefits. Obesity has been linked to chronic health problems such as diabetes and high blood pressure.
- Among adults in prison, 53% earned less than $10,000 per year before their incarceration.