It’s a sad truth: Widespread poverty isn’t a new or fleeting problem. Across decades governed by both Democratic and Republican presidents, 11%-14% of American citizens consistently struggled to afford the bare necessities. Since America is regarded as one of the wealthiest nations in the world, it’s natural to question why some of its residents can’t afford to live within its borders.
We spoke with Elizabeth Vivirito, founder of Vivirito Consulting, LLC, a strategic advisory firm focusing on policy and communications for inclusive growth. She broke down why persistent poverty exists, why it’s concentrated in select areas, and what we can do to break the devastating cycle.
What Is Persistent Poverty?
The United States Census Bureau says that persistent poverty occurs when a geographic region has a poverty rate of 20%+ for 30+ years. As of the bureau’s last report, nearly 11% of the nation’s counties are plagued by persistent poverty. Roughly 6% of the country’s population resides in one of those counties.
Per this map depicting long-term poverty, some states tend to have a greater number of poor residents than others. For instance, more than 14% of the population of Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, Texas and West Virginia regularly lack the financial resources needed to get by.
What Causes Persistent Poverty?
Currently, there are several states with failing economies. Perhaps unsurprisingly, five of the 14 states include Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico and West Virginia. Down economies often mean shuttered businesses and few jobs, which can plunge more people into poverty and keep others stuck.
But why else are parts of the nation experiencing a chronic lack of wealth? Vivirito said, “Across the U.S., poverty exists not because of inadequate wealth, but because of unequal distribution of that wealth. The U.S. not only has the world’s largest economy, [it has also] seen steady economic expansion since the 1960s, with per capita wealth growing from $3,000 in 1960 to over $72,000 today. Unfortunately, [the country has a] legacy of systemic inequality, built on our history of enslavement, theft of land, and unequal treatment of poor whites, immigrants, minorities, women, and people with disabilities.”
She continued, “It’s important to note that poverty exists in every state and community across America. Yet, there are disturbing trends: according to Prosperity Now Scorecard, liquid asset poverty is highest across large parts of the South, Kentucky, Indiana, West Virginia, and Nebraska. Persistently high poverty rates are driven by history (states with histories of wealth extraction from enslaved people, for example), labor market inequalities (groups of people being paid far less than others), generational wealth inequity, and current policies.
“Yet there’s one more big driver of poverty: anti-poverty narratives, which drive the idea that ‘poor people just don’t work hard enough’ or aren’t ‘deserving’ of assistance or aid. This is a huge reason behind unequal public and private benefits access.”
How Can Leaders Address the Problem?
According to Vivirito, it’s crucial that leaders “address the biggest burdens bringing down Americans’ financial health — healthcare, housing, and educational expenses — while addressing historic failures in the labor, housing, and other markets.” She added, “Concretely, this means ‘more and better’: Medicaid expansion, housing supports, and child poverty interventions.”
She encourages the government to reduce inefficient paperwork processes and unnecessary qualifications required to access government benefits. “This would allow people to focus on finding jobs and building stability instead of [complying with] onerous requirements.”
However, Vivirito said there’s another hurdle leaders must clear first. They need to work through “their anti-poverty biases and the story they’re telling about its causes and consequences. The truth is that over a quarter of people across America would struggle to pay for an unexpected $400 expense — that’s your sister, your dry cleaner, your child’s teacher.”
She stressed, “Poverty affects all of us across our communities — but because of the shame and judgment we have around it, people aren’t always honest at how precarious their financial situations are. Changing how we talk about poverty — it’s a problem in every community, and it could happen to almost any of us — is an essential first start.”
How Can the Average Person Help?
Vivirito urged, “Address your own anti-poverty bias, and ask yourself, What stories am I telling about why poverty exists and who it affects? Then, hold your leaders accountable and point out when they’re making assumptions not based on research but based on stereotypes.”
She continued, “Get curious about the who and why of poverty in your area. Barbara Kingsolver’s “Demon Copperhead” tells an extraordinary story of a man born into poverty in Appalachia, and I think it helps shine a light on what white poverty looks like throughout the South. It’s truly sobering to understand how anti-poverty narratives and [the] intentional pitting of whites against Blacks and Indigenous people [was used] for the purpose of extracting wealth from all poor people in the region.”
If You’re in Poverty
The U.S. government sets the poverty level based on income and family size. For example, if you live alone in 2023, and earn $14,580 or less, you’re considered impoverished. If you’re a couple, the earnings threshold increases to $19,720. A family of three is in poverty if the household earns less than $24,860.
Fortunately, if this is your reality, it doesn’t have to stay that way forever. It is possible to break free and build wealth.
In fact, the story of growing up poor and ending up rich is relatively common (but certainly not common enough). Generally, those who defy the odds against them feel a deep drive to change their circumstances, work exceptionally hard, develop sound money habits, and don’t fear failure. When you have little or nothing to lose, you have nowhere to go but up.
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