Redefining Poor in the U.S.

Redefining "Poor" in the U.S.

For most people, the first presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney two years ago is a distant memory. However, one thing that stands out is the fact that neither of them addressed poverty. In fact, the moderator, Jim Lehrer of the PBS NewsHour, never posed any questions that mentioned poverty.

Since then, to hear a politician—including the president—utter the words “poor” continues to be few and far between. Here’s why: It’s a common belief that poor people don’t vote. During the course of the 90-minute debate, President Obama neglected to mention poor or poverty and Romney inadvertently said the word only to backtrack and use a more vanilla term, “low-income.”

Consequently, perception about who society deems poor and who isn’t continues to blur. The federal poverty line is $11,670 for an individual, $15,730 for a family of two, $19,790 for a family of three and $23,850 for a family of four. Society considers these people poor. However, individuals surviving at income levels slightly above are called the working class – and sometime even lumped into the so-called middle class.

Last year, the New York Times published a piece on the “near poor,” or people whose incomes are less than 50 percent above the poverty line. This segment of society totals some 51 million Americans. If this is true, then more than 100 million, or one in three Americans, are considered poor or very close to it.

As reported in a recent community needs assessment (CNA) for Lafayette County, conducted by the Missouri Valley Community Action Agency (MVCAA), every year the U.S. Census Bureau releases its estimate of how many Americans lived below the federal poverty line at a specific point in time during the previous year. For the past several years, the official poverty rate has remained steady in the county at about 15 percent.

Perception is that the same people remain stuck at the bottom, representing the nation’s poor. However, MVCAA refutes this notion, stating that other Census data shows that nearly one in three Americans (31.6 percent) experienced a period of poverty for at least two months between 2009 and 2011. But, only 3.5 percent of the population was in poverty for all three years.

Other research data predicts that more than half of all Americans will experience at least one year of poverty or near poverty at some point during their working years. The CNA also states, “When including those who experience a year or more of unemployment, or turn to a safety net, the figure rises to nearly four out of five Americans.”

The poor and so-called middle class are no longer distant cousins. For working class and middle class people, normal life changes like unemployment, childbearing and health issues can be game changers.

The CNA reports that in Lafayette County, 1,043 or 6.5 percent of the total population (33,278) is unemployed. The number of persons living in poverty is 4,481 or 13.9 percent. Of the 13,250 households in the county, 6,408, live in poverty. Last year, 2,016 families received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, formerly called food stamps.

Another 4,641 individuals received SNAP; among that number, 418 people also received Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits. As of January 2014, of the 5,284 children enrolled in the county’s school districts, 2,479 received free or reduced lunches – this equates to roughly 47 percent of all children enrolled in elementary, middle and high schools in the county.

MVCAA’s mission is to eradicate poverty in the seven-county region it serves. This includes Carroll, Chariton, Johnson, Lafayette, Pettis, Saline and Ray counties. Tackling the stigma associated with the “poor” is one of the organization’s core tenants. The 501 (c)(3) nonprofit hosts a Poverty Simulation annually, developed by the Missouri Association of Community Action (MACA).

MVCAA will hold its next Poverty Simulation in the Spring of 2015. Among program goals is to stimulate change, improve services for low-income people, increase connections among programs and organizations serving low-income families and increase advocacy for poor families living in poverty. The Poverty Simulation experience is designed to help participants gain a better understanding of what it’s like to live in a typical, low-income family trying to survive month-to-month. MVCAA stresses that it is a simulation and not a game.

The objective is to sensitize participants to the realities faced by the poor. This includes some of the frustrations, obstacles and constraints of living with limited resources and trying to access services to cover life’s basic necessities. Participants undergo a variety of challenges during a month that is simulated in four, 15-minute weeks.

Each participant is given a role and a set of circumstances that they attempt to live through during that month. Thirty to 80 participants assume roles of up to 26 different families facing poverty. Some are newly unemployed, others recently deserted by the “breadwinner,” and others are receiving TANF – with or without additional earned income. Others are seniors who receive Social Security, or grandparents who are raising grandchildren.

The desired outcome of simulation is to cause participants to question:

  • Long-held assumptions aboutthe reasons people remain poor.

  • Processes and procedures that social service entities use to qualify or disqualify low income families for/from support services.

  • The level of adequacy of these support services.

  • The equity of government policy at all levels.

  • Efficacy of their own role in helping people with low-income to achieve basic levels of economic self-sufficiency and security.

The simulation ends with a debriefing period where participants, volunteers and MVCAA staff share feelings and experiences and talk about what they have learned about the lives of people in poverty.

“It’s time to stop turning a blind eye to poverty and work together as a community to help our families,” said Abra Bridges, MVCAA’s community outreach specialist in Lafayette County. “We also need to remove the silos within the county. As a community, we can work collectively to help lessen poverty’s sting by coordinating with and attending the Social Services committee that meets once a month in Lafayette County.” Bridges said the committee consists of a variety of agencies and community groups who want to make an impact.

MVCAA also offers a family support group called New Directions. The groups meets the second Tuesday of the month in Higginsville at the First Baptist Church and the fourth Tuesday of the month in Lexington at the Moose Lodge. Group meetings start at 5:30 p.m. with a free meal and free childcare. New Directions offers educational workshops, budgeting, nutrition classes and much more for poor and working poor families.

“I am happy to say that we recently partnered with Pathways. Some of our families tackle mental health issues that they have been facing...It is something they have asked for and now we have it. It is well appreciated and the services are being used,” Bridges said.

Dr. Donna Beegle, an expert who educates people about how to get out of poverty, has firsthand knowledge about the subject. In a recent gathering in Cape Girardeau, she shared her own experiences about climbing out of poverty, the negative perspectives people living in it can have and steps to overcome those feelings.

Before becoming a speaker and author, Beegle struggled as a poor, single mother of two children, and dropped out of school only to end up homeless and drawing welfare benefits.

“I used to think the people who were making it, they were so much better and so much smarter than me,” she told the Southeast Missourian. “That’s what poverty teaches you. That you aren’t right. You internalize that. You start to believe it.”

Now, Beegle travels around the country teaching what is known as an “Opportunity Community Model.” The model’s goal, according to her website, is to create a community approach that bridges the gap between social service operations and the people who need them through a system of collaboration. The ultimate goal is to enable people living in poverty to realize their strengths and reach their potential for moving forward.

“You have to admit that you have skills,” Beegle said. “And you have to know people are willing to help. But you have to ask.

Considering that approximately one-third of the United States is poor, initiatives like Beegle’s and MVCAA’s are crucial to addressing the needs of the poor and creating a culture of understanding. To dismiss the needs of more than 100 million citizens is a humanitarian crisis regardless of where one sits politically. Unfortunately, dismissing the plight of the poor is the state of American politics.

But it wasn’t always that way. Politicians used to utter the word, poor. In his third inaugural address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “The hopes of the Republic cannot forever tolerate either underserved poverty or selfserving wealth.” And President Lyndon B. Johnson took the opportunity on his first State of the Union address to declare “war on poverty,” enacting a number of programs that still carry modern day safety nets. Consequently, community action agencies, like MVCAA, were created as a result of Johnson’s War on Poverty. Daniele Weeks published an article about America’s growing poor in The Atlantic earlier this year. He writes, “Fifty years after Lyndon B. Johnson launched the War on Poverty, tens of millions of ‘secondclass’ Americans are still legally or effectively disenfranchised.”

He goes on to say that “members of the impoverished underclass” are 50 million strong. Nearly half, some 20.5 million, live in deep poverty on less than $12,000 annually for a family of four—the highest rate since recordkeeping began in 1975.

Coupled with that are another 100 million citizens struggling to stay a few paychecks above the poverty line and fully half of the U.S. population is either poor or near poor, according to Census Bureau data.

Politicians would do well to meaningfully articulate the word poor in their speeches and address poverty in their agendas, as they are neglecting critical mass. To dismiss the poor as an unviable voting block is inhuman. Perhaps Mahatma Gandhi sums it up best when she said, “Poverty is the worst form of violence.”

To learn more about efforts to address poverty in Lafayette County, call Abra Bridges at 660.584.3131 or visit

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