Barbara Ehrenreich wonders: What’s the real poverty rate in America?

Barbara Ehrenreich, “How America turned poverty into a crime,”, August 9, 2011:

At the time I wrote “Nickel and Dimed,” I wasn’t sure how many people it directly applied to — only that the official definition of poverty was way off the mark, since it defined an individual earning $7 an hour, as I did on average, as well out of poverty. But three months after the book was published, the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., issued a report entitled “Hardships in America: The Real Story of Working Families,” which found an astounding 29 percent of American families living in what could be more reasonably defined as poverty, meaning that they earned less than a barebones budget covering housing, child care, health care, food, transportation, and taxes — though not, it should be noted, any entertainment, meals out, cable TV, Internet service, vacations, or holiday gifts. 29 percent is a minority, but not a reassuringly small one, and other studies in the early 2000s came up with similar figures.

The big question, 10 years later, is whether things have improved or worsened for those in the bottom third of the income distribution, the people who clean hotel rooms, work in warehouses, wash dishes in restaurants, care for the very young and very old, and keep the shelves stocked in our stores. The short answer is that things have gotten much worse, especially since the economic downturn that began in 2008.

Liberty does not flow to those who lack the money to eat, or keep warm.  We have strides to make to get to “liberty and justice for all.”

Libertarians, why do you oppose liberty for poor-but-working people?

7 Responses to Barbara Ehrenreich wonders: What’s the real poverty rate in America?

  1. […] “Barbara Ehrenriech wonders, what’s the real poverty rate in America?” […]


  2. Ed Darrell says:

    Jobs are the chance to prove oneself and rise accordingly.

    Jobs should be a chance to prove ability, and rise. That ability to rise has been shut off for a lot of Baby Boomers, and Gen X and Gen Y kids — and consequently, there is no room at the bottom for someone to start out.

    Nor is there room at the top.

    We need a rising tide, not profits delivered only to the 1% through a fire hose. A rising tide lifts all boats. A fire hose just tears bark off trees, if there’s no fire.


  3. Commentator says:

    The World Bank defines poverty as anywhere from $365/year to $540/year. If you ever totalled all the in-kind per capita income every US citizen and/or resident receives (police, fire, highways, etc.) as well as all the in-kind benefits the poor receive, even slum dwellers may be making $100,000/year.

    And the real cause of misery for the poor is a high unemployment rate, particularly for the low skilled. That is why Reagan and Clinton/Gingrich their best presidents (and Giuliani their best mayor) and Obama (and Carter) were their worst.

    Jobs are the chance to prove oneself and rise accordingly.


  4. Jim says:

    Hi Ellie,

    Please forgive the oversight. You’re right. When I worked in the old Cabrini Green housing projects, I did see indoor toilets. Not all of them worked, mind you. But those ungrateful slobs could have purchased and installed replacements. I realize the elevators didn’t work and humping a commode up 25 flights might be a chore for a single woman.

    But think of our forefathers ruggedly carving a comfortable niche out of the wilderness with no help from anyone!

    (I’m sorry, I just made myself nauseous.)

    Thanks for the correction — I read the Heritage report but missed the inclusion of “indoor toilets” as being another indicator of the myth of poverty in America.

    My mistake!



  5. Ellie says:

    Jim, you left out indoor toilets. IIRC, indoor plumbing was one of the things mentioned in the Heritage Foundation report. After all, people in Somalia don’t have refrigerators or indoor toilets.


  6. Jim says:


    Haven’t you heard?

    Heritage says there are hardly any poor in America. According to the anarcho-conservative “think” tank, since most poor people have refrigerators and electric fans, they are not poor.

    I’ve heard similar statements made by my wealthy friends. Poolside.



  7. Ellie says:

    I read the entire article and agree with most of it, which isn’t always the case when I read Ehrenreich. However, I have to say she lost some of my sympathy when she wanted me to feel sorry for the person driving without insurance. You know what? When the day comes that I can’t pay my insurance, I won’t drive. Uninsured drivers do not belong on the road, and I don’t want them anywhere near me when I’m driving. Does she want me to become homeless because I can’t pay for what an uninsured driver does to me?

    That said, she’s right. There are many people in this country, some well-to-do and some of them only a paycheck away from homelessness, who would like to make poverty a crime.


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