5 Poverty


Poverty looks different across the world. Commonly when we think of poverty, we relate it to the images we see on television of malnourished children living in developing countries. However, poverty is all around us. Even though the United States is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, each year millions of Americans live in poverty. The United States Census BureauIn the US in 2021 37.9 million people were living in poverty, 12.8% of the population. (Creamer et al., 2022). A wide array of Americans from all races, ethnicities, ages, backgrounds, and geographic locations makes up the 43.1 million people currently living in poverty. Some groups are more vulnerable to poverty. The most vulnerable groups make up most of the impoverished population (Rodgers, 2015). The groups that are more susceptible to suffer poverty include single parent families especially those headed by women), minorities, unemployed or under- employed adults, individuals with mental illness or disabilities, and the elderly (Rodgers, 2015). An example of what living in poverty looks like in America is a single parent who works full time, but still cannot afford to pay for food, rent, childcare, medical bills, and the costs of transportation to work (Results, 2017). Poverty is said to be America’s most serious and costly social problem (Rodgers, 2015).

Poverty Defined

Although poverty is one of the most familiar and enduring conditions known to humanity, it is a highly complicated concept to understand fully. To date there is no one standard definition of poverty, but numerous definitions and descriptions exist. All current definitions and descriptions agree that poverty is a complex societal problem.  It is important that all members of our society work together to provide opportunities for all members to reach their full potential. It helps all of us to help one another.

Absolute and Relative Poverty

When discussing poverty, the terms absolute poverty and relative poverty are often used (Iceland, 2013). Absolute and relative are the two most common forms of poverty delineated in our society and around the world (Pierson & Thomas, 2010).

ABSOLUTE POVERTY refers to the amount of money necessary to meet basic needs such as food, clothing, and shelter. The concept of absolute poverty is not concerned with the broader quality of life issues or with the overall level of inequality in society but is based strictly on whether or not basic needs are being met (UNESCO, 2017). Examples of absolute poverty would include not knowing when or where your next meal will come from, not having access to clean drinking water, and not having an adequate place to sleep each night.

RELATIVE POVERTY refers to the lack of resources to obtain the types of diet, participate in the activities, and have the living conditions and amenities that are customary to maintain the average standard of living in society (Pierson, & Thomas, 2010; Poverty eradication, 2012). Relative poverty defines poverty in relation to the economic status of other members of society, therefore determining if people are poor by gauging if they fall below normal standards of living in a given society (UNESCO, 2017). Examples of relative poverty would include not being able to have your children participate in after school activities, not being able to afford to dine out, or not being able to take vacations.

Poverty Measured

In the United States, there are two official poverty measures. Poverty thresholds are the primary version of the federal poverty measure and the second measure being poverty guidelines.

POVERTY THRESHOLDS were developed in the mid-1960s by determining the cost of a minimum food diet and then multiplied the cost by three to account for other family expenses (United States Census Bureau, 2016). The U.S Census Bureau updates the threshold annually to account for inflation using the Consumer Price Index (Institute for Research on Poverty, 2016). Currently, the U.S. Census Bureau determines poverty status by comparing pre-tax cash income against the threshold that has been set for that year (see Figure 1) (Institute for Research on Poverty, 2016). If the family’s total income is less than the family’s threshold, then that family and every individual in it is considered to be living in poverty (United States Census Bureau, 2016). Based on the poverty threshold data it was concluded there were 43.1 million people in the United States living in poverty in 2015 (Institute for Research on Poverty, 2016; Proctor, Semega, & Kollar, 2016).

Figure 1: U.S. Census Bureau Poverty Thresholds, 2015, released September 2016

POVERTY GUIDELINES are the other official federal poverty measure used in the United States. Updated poverty guidelines are issued every year by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) (Institute for Research on Poverty, 2016). Udated guidelines take economic changes into account. The poverty guidelines are a simplification of poverty thresholds utilized to determine an individual’s eligibility for select federal programs (DHHS, 2017).

Examples of federal programs that use poverty guidelines to determine eligibility include the following:

  • Department of Health and Human Services: Community Services Block Grant, Head Start, Low-Income Home Energy Assistance
  • Department of Agriculture: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamp Program), National School Lunch Program, Child, and Adult Care Food Program
  • Department of Energy: Weatherization Assistance for Low-Income Persons
  • Department of Labor: Job Corps, National Farmworker Jobs Program, Workforce Investment Act Youth Activities

(Institute for Research on Poverty, 2016)

Figure 2: 2017 Poverty Guidelines for the 48 Contiguous States and the District of Columbia

Potential Problems with Poverty Measures

Even though the current official poverty measures have been used consistently since the 1960s, there are widespread concerns that the federal poverty measure is flawed. There is an overarching agreement that the Census Bureau does not identify all individuals living in poverty. The Census Bureau is unable to obtain exact numbers because many low-income individuals live with others or are frequently moving and are in many cases homeless. Furthermore, those residing in psychiatric hospitals, college dorms, nursing homes, serving in the military, and/or in jails or prisons are not counted. It is estimated that several million individuals who would fall below the poverty threshold and poverty guidelines are not counted each year (Rodgers, 2015).

Federal Response to Poverty

Each year hundreds of billions of public and private dollars are spent on efforts to prevent poverty and assist those living in poverty (Rodgers, 2015). According to the United States Census Bureau in 2020, there were approximately 69.8 million people in the United States receiving some sort of assistance through government-funded welfare programs (Social Security Administration, 2021).

The welfare system in the United States consists of government programs which provide financial assistance to individuals and families who cannot support themselves. Welfare programs are funded by taxpayers and allow people to cope with financial stress during challenging periods of their lives. The goals of welfare include the attainment of:

  • work,
  • education
  • an overall better standard of living
  • decrease in economic hardship and poverty

To receive assistance from government funded programs individuals must meet a certain criterion to be eligible. Each program has its own distinct criteria. If individuals do not qualify, they do not receive assistance and would need to seek assistance from somewhere else. To apply to these programs individuals must go through state Departments of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

History of The National Welfare System

The United States laid its foundation for a national welfare system in response to the Great Depression that started in 1929 and went through most of the 1930s. The Social Security Act of 1935 was the first of many government policies and welfare programs created to combat poverty and economic hardships (Rodgers, 2015). Since the establishment of Social Security Act of 1935, the federal government has continued to develop numerous welfare programs to attempts to eradicate poverty and the economic hardships faced by millions of Americans. Key programs to combat poverty include but are not limited to the following:

  • 1935: The Social Security Act – The original act included grants to states for unemployment compensation, aid to dependent children and public health. Today, Social Security is the largest safety net program in the U.S.
  • 1935: Unemployment Insurance – Originally a part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1935 Social Security Act. Today’s U.S. Department of Labor Unemployment Insurance (UI) programs provides benefits to eligible workers who become unemployed through no fault of their own and who meet certain requirements.
  • 1964: Head Start – Part of the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act that was designed to reduce disparities among young children. The 1994 Head Start Act Amendments established the Early Head Start program, which expanded the benefits of early childhood development to low- income families with children under three years old.
  • 1964: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – The first Food Stamp program ran from 1939-43, but the program we know today was established with the 1964 Food Stamp Act. The program is now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
  • 1965: Medicare/Medicaid – These health programs were established with amendments to the Social Security Act in 1965. Today, Medicare provides health insurance for people over 65 years of age and some younger than that but who have certain disabilities or diseases. Medicaid is a Federal and state partnership that provides health coverage for people with low incomes.
  • 1972: Supplemental Security Income Program (SSI) – SSI provides income for people 65 or older as well as to blind or disabled adults and children.
  • 1972: Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) – WIC is a nutrition program that benefits pregnant women, new mothers and young children who live near poverty and who are at nutritional risk.
  • 1972: Federal Pell Grant Program – Pell Grants help pay for tuition and other expenses for low- income college students.
  • 1975: The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) – The EITC is a tax credit that benefits working people who have low to moderate income, especially families.
  • 1996: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) – TANF issues federal grants to states for programs that provide temporary benefits to families with children when the income does not provide for the family’s basic needs. Programs include job preparation, family planning, and other benefits as well as cash assistance.
  • 1997: Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) – CHIP provides health coverage to nearly eight million children in families who cannot afford private health insurance but who have incomes that are too high to qualify for Medicaid.

All information is from the Center for Poverty Research

Poverty Stigmas

In the United States individuals living in poverty are not only faced with their day-to-day hardships but also with the harsh stigmas that society has surrounding poverty. When evaluating stigmas surrounding poverty, they typically fall into three categories: institutional, social, and personal stigmas (Bell, 2012; Inglis, 2016):

  • Institutional Stigmas can be seen in laws, policies and institutional practices that discriminate against, or shame individuals living in poverty (Inglis, 2016). Institutional stigma is that which arises from the process of claiming benefits (Bell, 2012)
  • Social Stigmas include public attitudes toward poverty and welfare, and are typically measured through national surveys (Inglis, 2016). Social stigma is the feeling that other people judge claiming benefits to be shameful (Bell, 2012)
  • Personal Stigmas occur when individuals internalize the various forms of stigma and discrimination that they experience or perceive from others (Inglis, 2016). Personal stigma is a person’s own feeling that claiming benefits is shameful (Bell, 2012).

Poverty Sterotypes

Furthermore, society holds many stereotypes about individuals living in poverty. A stereotype can be defined as an often unfair and untrue belief that many people have about all people with a specific characteristic (Stereotype, 2017). The stereotypes that society has labeled individuals living in poverty are usually false. Some of the most common stereotypes and misconceptions of individuals living in poverty include:

  • Individuals living in poverty are lazy and have weak work ethics. In reality, there is no evidence that individuals living in poverty are lazier or have weaker work ethics than individuals from other/higher socioeconomic groups. In fact, poor working adults work, on average, 2,500 hours per year, the rough equivalent of 1.2 full-time jobs often patching together several part-time jobs in order to support their families (Gorski, 2013)
  • Individuals living in poverty have problems with substance use. Research has shown that low-income individuals are less likely to use or abuse substances than their wealthier counterparts (Gorski, 2013).

Stigmatizing and stereotyping individuals living in poverty only further creates a divide between low-income people who are living in poverty and those who are not (Inglis, 2016). Society’s harsh views on poverty cause impoverished individuals to further feel socially excluded and ashamed of the situation they are in. Research has shown negative effects on an individual’s self-esteem, self-concept, and mental and physical health due to being stigmatized and stereotyped so severely by society (Inglis, 2016).

Theories and Explanations of Poverty

There are many theories that attempt to explain poverty and why it exists. The following are some of the most commonly used theories to explain the existence of poverty.

  • The Culture of Poverty is the theory that certain groups and individuals persist in a state of poverty because they have distinct beliefs, values, behavior, and attitudes that are incompatible with economic success (Pierson, & Thomas, 2010). Therefore, individuals are unable to get out of poverty.
  • The Cycle of Poverty or the cycle of deprivation is a theoretical explanation for the persistence of poverty. The theory focuses on how attitudes, values, and behaviors are passed on from one generation to the next, further explaining the ongoing cycle of low educational attainment, unemployment, poor housing and so on within families and communities (Pierson & Thomas, 2010). There is much research that indicates that children and adolescents who grow up in poverty suffer significant disadvantages, not just as children but throughout their lifespan. Alarming statistics report that children who grow up in poverty are twice as likely to drop out of school and are one and half times more likely to be unemployed (Rodgers, 2015), further contributing to the ongoing cycle of poverty.
  • Structural/Environmental Explanation proposes that poverty is based on the social structure of society (Kirst-Ashman, 2013). To put it simply, the structural explanation suggests that poverty and its ongoing existence results from problems in society that lead to a lack of opportunity and a lack of jobs (University of Minnesota, 2010). Structural and environmental factors that play a role in this explanation include fluctuations in the economy, not having enough jobs in the job market, low paying jobs or jobs with no benefits, lack of affordable housing, and discrimination (Ritter, 2014). An example today is the price of living is increasing while the financial assistance and jobs are staying the same amount it has been for years.
  • Individualistic Explanation Similar to the culture of poverty theory, the individualistic explanation of poverty suggests that poverty results from the fact that people in poverty lack the motivation to work and have certain beliefs and values that contribute to their poverty (University of Minnesota, 2010). Individual factors that contribute to a person living in poverty may include lack of job skills, educational deficits, mental illness, declining health or disabilities, substance use, single parenting, lack of childcare, and lack of reliable transportation (Ritter, 2014).

Poverty and Social Work

Social workers abide by the National Association of Social Work (NASW) Code of Ethics. One of the six values in the NASW code of ethics is social justice. The definition of the ethical principle from the NASW states, “Social workers’ social change efforts are focused primarily on issues of poverty, unemployment, discrimination, and other forms of social injustice,” (NASW, 2008). With the NASW Code of Ethics acting as the profession’s guiding light, it is highly important for social workers to have knowledge and understanding of poverty and its severity within our society and around the world.


While the US is one of the wealthiest nations in the world, tens of millions of people live in poverty. Despite government programs and interventions, poverty persists and often falls on the most vulnerable populations. Therefore, Social Work is committed to serving those experiencing poverty and advocating for social change to provide more resources and opportunities. If Social Work is your intended career path, it is important to recognize that you will serve individuals and families who fall below the poverty line and face financial hardships. Therefore, as future social workers it is important that you have an adequate understanding of what poverty is and the effects it has on individuals and society as a whole.


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Introduction to Social Work: A Look Across the Profession Copyright © 2022 by James Langford, LCSW and Craig Keaton, PhD, LMSW is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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