Nov 14, 2006

Are the poor still with us?

by Kari Mitchell, Editor in Chief
The amount of damage caused by Hurricane Katrina over a year ago was incredible, almost unbelievable. Many people lost their homes, their jobs, and worse – their families. There were over 200,000 homes in the city of New Orleans alone. Think about the people in New Orleans, as well as the rest of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, who were also affected by this storm.

Now think about the people who were living without food or shelter before the hurricane even hit. Were these people shown the same empathy? The aftermath of Katrina put the issue of poverty in the news. Bruce S. Gordon, president and chief executive officer of the NAACP was quoted in a Washington Post article saying: "Katrina has been an attention-getting experience for this administration. It's clear that the administration has not had [black and poor people] as high on their priority list as they should have."

Poverty is a problem that thousands of people in this country are experiencing on a daily basis, and not simply because of a natural disaster. However, little compassion is given to the poor. Those that have the ability to help are unaware that poverty exists; they don’t want to acknowledge that it exists or they just don’t understand the nature of poverty.

Poverty does exist in . All states experience some degree of poverty, as statistics show. According to the 2002 U.S. Census bureau, about 27 percent of the New Orleans population was living below the poverty line. The state with one of the highest poverty rates was Louisiana at 18 percent of its total population, and the state with one of the lowest rates was New Hampshire at six percent. Overall, about 12 percent of the total population was living in poverty in 2002. This may not sound like a significantly large percentage; however, it’s close to 35,000,000 individuals whose basic needs were not being sufficiently met.

The people whose needs are not being met are of various ages, both sexes and of different races. The stereotype of a person in poverty is of someone who is unwilling to work, but this is an inaccurate assumption. Half the poor are either too young or too old to work. About 10 percent are elderly and about 40 percent are children.

Women head about 40 percent of the families in poverty. The stereotype is of the woman who became pregnant outside of marriage. This is only the case in a small percentage. Other factors include divorce and lower wages paid to women. Explain the 35 percent of those in poverty who live in married-couple families. What about the 20 percent who live alone or with non-relatives? About five percent live in other settings.

Poverty also affects all races. About 11 percent of white Americans are poor and about 26 percent of African Americans and Latinos live in poverty. Many believe that there are more blacks and Hispanics in poverty since the percentage is higher, but there are more whites in the overall population. Over half of poor Americans are actually white. Anyone, regardless of age, sex or race, can be affected by poverty.

Stereotyping is not accurate, these people are…people, and should be valued as such. They’re Americans living in the wealthiest nation. And yet there is still distance between “the rich” and “the poor” because of their differences in lifestyles. However, the poor do not choose to be poor. 

After Hurricane Katrina’s destruction, survivors of the storm were taken to various shelters. Barbara Bush told a reporter for “Marketplace,” a program on NPR radio, “What I'm hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.” Her comment was probably accurately stated, but insensitive regardless. The hurricane hit and the country wanted to help the people who were impacted by this storm. But why weren’t mission’s teams flocking to New Orleans before Katrina? The same people were there suffering. Did missions groups and the government know that? The presence of poverty in the must be acknowledged.

People often associate poverty with the conditions of third-world countries and not with . The poverty line is approximately three times the amount of money a family would spend on groceries, but it varies by families and even by year. Unlike third-world countries, Americans are blessed to have access to groceries and food. However, parents should not give children the false idea that people are not starving in the , or even more specifically, in the child’s own neighborhood.   

Think of a mother who tells her little child, “Eat all your vegetables. There are starving children in Africa.” The mother wants to teach her child to be thankful for his or her food and not to be wasteful when other children do not have any food. However, why doesn’t the mother say, “Eat all your vegetables. There are starving children in Louisiana”? It’s not ’s biggest problem, but it is a problem that 35,000,000 Americans faced in 2002.

Why don’t we help the 35,000,000 Americans? It would be impossible for one person to help them all. That is why poverty has become a dichotomy, having two causes which evoke either empathy or judgment.

However, before judgment is cast, it is important to understand the nature of the problem. Poverty is closely related to social structure. Various limitations can result from social class, such as those regarding schooling and privilege. Every area of life, including family, education, marriage, health, politics and religion, is affected by a person’s social class and will reflect a particular lifestyle. Those living in poverty found it harder to escape the storm with no money, no transportation or no other place to go. Some were just stubborn, but for many, there were limited resources. The news referred to those who were able to successfully escape as “refugees,” as if they were from another country. No, they are Americans who were suffering.   

A person in poverty typically will not suffer long. It’s possible to create a better life, despite the many hindering factors. The American social system provides opportunities for mobility to every individual. One of the most common forms of mobility is intergenerational mobility, in which children end up in a different class than their parents. Poverty is dynamic and ever changing. Despite what many believe, positive statistics show that, on average, people live in poverty for less than a year. Only about 12 percent remain in poverty for five or more consecutive years. And children born in poverty are not likely to be poor as adults. In 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act was passed. The law set a cap of five years on welfare and required recipients to look for employment. The idea is to encourage recipients to get back on their feet sooner and prevent people from “abusing the system.”

Due to poverty’s negative connotation in the , little sympathy is given to those who are struggling financially. Critical action can not be taken unless people are aware that poverty exists, acknowledge that it is affecting people in the and understand the nature of the problem. Only then will advancements be made in eliminating this serious problem.

Contact Kari Mitchell at



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