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September 25, 2013

The Effect of Poverty on American Society

by Angel Pumila

The Effect of Poverty on American Society

The economic news in America is more dismal than it has been in decades. It seems that every time you turn on the news, Wall Street numbers are falling, global economies are failing, more and more people are unemployed, and those who already lived in poverty when the economic crisis began now have less than ever. In what has been considered by some as one of the richest countries in the world, poverty and its natural consequences are becoming an ever growing problem.  According to the latest reports by the U.S. Census Bureau, the poverty level in the United States rose to an incredible 15.1 percent in 2010. This means that 46.2 Americans are living at or below the poverty line, which has been set at an income level of $22,350 per year for a family of four. As politicians and economists struggle to find answers to this problem, more and more children are suffering from the effects of simply being born into a poor family. No one seems to know the solution, although many efforts are being made to create jobs, extend unemployment and extend welfare benefits. However, as economies around the world fall into disarray, poverty statistics continue to grow.

There was a time when people who were poor were looked upon as lazy people, people who refused to work. As unemployment lines become longer and more and more people show up to apply for fewer jobs, that misperception is no longer the case. America’s new poor include middle aged men who were laid off from lucrative jobs after years of service, women who cannot get a job because there are so many more qualified people and high school graduates who are not desirable without college educations. This new population of unemployed is unused to living in poverty and has been forced to accept help from a government that they formerly supported through tax dollars.

The government does try to help. Programs like welfare and food stamps try to ensure that children will not go to bed hungry, but these programs are limited as to how much they can give. Grants for college give hope for a future filled with college graduates who might otherwise not be able to further their education and get a good job. Unemployment benefits help those who recently lost their jobs through no fault of their own, but those payments barely cover many mortgages that are well over $1,000 per month. None of these programs provide people with any quality of life. They are designed as survival mechanisms, and while inadequate, it is better than what many people in other countries have. In many countries, the paradigm is simple: “If you don’t work or hunt, you don’t eat,” evidenced by the number of distended stomachs of young children who parade across our televisions each day.

And with poverty comes a host of other problems: drug addiction, prostitution, crime. These are all problems that stem from poverty, and those who suffer the most are the children of America. Gary W. Evans wrote in an article titled, The Environment of Childhood Poverty, “Poor children confront widespread environmental inequities. Compared with their economically advantaged counterparts, they are exposed to more family turmoil, violence, separation from their families, instability, and chaotic households. Poor children experience less social support, and their parents are less responsive and more authoritarian. Low-income children are read to relatively infrequently, watch more TV, and have less access to books and computers.  Low-income parents are less involved in their children’s school activities. The air and water poor children consume are more polluted. Their homes are more crowded, noisier, and of lower quality. Low-income neighborhoods are more dangerous, offer poorer municipal services, and suffer greater physical deterioration. Predominantly low-income schools and day care are inferior” (Evans, 2004). When children are surrounded by poverty and its consequences, life is very different from the life experienced by children who live in higher income families. These children are oftentimes surrounded by violence, drug use and exposure to sex and grow up thinking their way of life is normal. This mindset only perpetuates the problem. However, children only know that to which they are exposed. When violence is normal, when they are surrounded with drugs and sex, these things which would be alien to some children of better socioeconomic statues are the normal way of things for the poor. Therefore, it is no surprise that many children who grow up in impoverished environments turn to drugs in order to cope with their deprived circumstances.

Anna Gassman-Pines and Hirokazu Yoshikawa agree. In their journal article, titled, The Effects of Antipoverty Programs on Children’s Cumulative Level of Poverty-Related Risks, the researchers state, “Developmental risk has been defined as biological and environmental conditions that increase the likelihood of later unfavorable outcomes. Risk occurs at different levels, including individual (e.g., low birth weight, difficult temperament), family (e.g., single parent family, maternal depression), and broader contextual levels (e.g., neighborhood violence, concentrated neighborhood poverty). Research has shown that risks for unfavorable child outcomes operate cumulatively: The more risks children experience, the worse their socioemotional and cognitive development” (Gassman-Pines, Yoshikawa, 2006).

It can be deduced from these researchers that children react to their environments. If they grow up in poverty, they can suffer a plethora of developmental, emotional and physical difficulties as a result. When these children start life in a disadvantaged capacity, their chances of “rising above” are minimal. Only those children who are more intelligent that average children will have the capacity and wherewithal to break the grip of poverty that has been thrust upon them. 

Education, the one thing that could help children overcome their environment, is lacking in quality in many inner city neighborhoods where poor children reside. Schools are understaffed with qualified teachers, violence and drugs are prevalent on playgrounds and in hallways and bathrooms, and teachers are forced to focus on maintaining discipline more than educating students. Many students in poorer neighborhoods can make it through many grades in school without knowing how to read or write, which is an abomination.

Poverty is a slippery slope in our society. As more and more people become unemployed, the wealthy are burdened by higher taxes to pay for programs that help them. As the drug problem in America increases, so do crime rates. Prisons, underfunded and overcrowded, release criminals back into society because they cannot afford to house them. Crime spreads into all neighborhoods, not only the poor ones, and everyone becomes affected. But what can we do?

Gassman-Pines and Yoshikawa suggest that social programs are beneficial toward helping the poor overcome their plight. They state that volunteer programs are more successful than government-mandated programs.  While I agree that social programs can be successful with helping some people, I think that the solution to the problem of poverty lies not in a specific program but a total revamping of our educational system. For example, it has been proved repeatedly that children who graduate from fancy private schools receive a better education and have a better chance of being accepted into a quality university than children who go through inner city schooling. Instead of throwing our tax dollars into some general fund that is designated for this frivolous idea or that, the majority of our tax dollars should be channeled toward the education of our children. It is simple. If we don’t try to help the children of today, we will suffer the consequences in the future through increased poverty levels and all of the crime that results.

Yes, programs like welfare and food stamps do provide a temporary fix to an enormous problem. These programs keep people from starving. They do not, however, provide any long-term solutions to the problem of poverty, nor do they help anyone find and keep a job. Until we stabilize our economy, we will continue to feel the ripple effect of poverty through our society.

Finally, it is important to note that ending poverty is not only the responsibility of the government, but of the individual, as well. Recently, Florida passed a law (that was subsequently overturned) that required all recipients of welfare to take a mandated drug test. If the recipient failed the drug test, then the benefits would be denied. I think this is a plausible solution to the problem of people taking advantage of a system that tries to help them. People do need to be accountable for their actions and should not be allowed to take advantage of taxpayer dollars if they have no willingness to help themselves. There are so many drug treatment alternatives today that there can be no excuse for the man who prefers to spend his days doing drugs, ignoring his children and being generally unproductive. Ultimately, people have to be responsible for their own lives. Choices have to be made. While it is understood that in today’s recent economical climate, many people have lost their jobs and are struggling to find another, even more people simply choose to live off of a government that willingly provides food, money and shelter. These people should be held accountable.

The government and society in general do have a responsibility to help those less fortunate. Refocusing our efforts on education could go a long way toward helping children have a better life. Ultimately though, it is up to each parent to help their children on the way to a bright future. While poverty does cause its own set of problems toward that goal, raising our children in a healthy, loving and drug and violence-free environment can provide a foundation that will enable children to rise above poverty and a possible life of crime.


Evans, G. (2004). The environment of childhood poverty. American Psychologist, Vol 59(2). pp. 77-92. 

Gassman-Pines, A. & Yoshikawa, H. (2006). The effects of antipoverty program’s on children’s cumulative level of poverty-related risk. Developmental Psychology, Vol 42(6). pp. 981-999. 


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