One may be excused for thinking that poverty is a simple word or a straightforward concept. There is no single definition of what poverty is, but it is certainly an economic condition that most everybody hopes to avoid. Poverty is a very relative term, as it clearly depends where one lives and what measures of poverty are used to determine the extent and impact of poverty on an individual, a group of people or even a whole society.
Thus, poverty is laden with many meanings and it is worth noting that it can be used descriptively or as an historical and political term. It is important to emphasize that poverty is closely related to the economy. In an economic system that heavily favors wealthy citizens over the so-called middle class and the non-wealthy and poor, deep social divisions and conflicts often arise. In the case of the USA, since the mid 1970s, there has been a massive transfer of wealth, marked by near-astronomical gains in prosperity for the richest citizens while an ever-growing number of workers and their families, have seen their incomes shrink and erode.
It is no secret at all that the often cited middle class has shrunk or nearly disappeared as an economically prospering section of US society. There is ample statistical evidence to illustrate how working Americans have seen their share of prosperity, along with the aspiration to achieve prosperity thought decent paying jobs, slip away. The flip side of such a slide into poverty form many people, is that a small but influential group of richer people continuous prosper under the existing economic and social order. The rich keep getting richer and the poor poorer, is a commonplace observation.
It is not uncommon that even in a family with two full-time wage earners, making ends meet is a constant struggle. Salaries have simply been eroded by inflation and by a tax system that is heavily biased in favor for the wealthy. This has led to a situation where it has become necessary for Government to take on increasing levels of unsustainable debt, simply because there is a powerful political lobby that successful prevents tax increases on the wealthy. In virtually no other modern economy do the wealthy pay such a small portion of their income in taxes and can also reduce their tax dues so easily through write-offs and claimed business losses.
The trend has been well publicized in recent years and been publicly debated as the “We are the 99 percent” movement has emerged as a vocal political voice. It is well worth quoting a 2011 Congressional Budget Office report from 2011.
“For the 1 percent of the population with the highest income, average real after-tax household income grew by 275 percent between 1979 and 2007. As a result of that uneven income growth, the distribution of after-tax household income in the United States was substantially more unequal in 2007 than in 1979: The share of income accruing to higher-income households increased, whereas the share accruing to other households declined. In fact, between 2005 and 2007, the after-tax income received by the 20 percent of the population with the highest income exceeded the after-tax income of the remaining 80 percent.”
Many more statistics are available on the social and economic problems arising from an increasingly unequal society. Poverty is indeed a global problem and entire countries categorized as least-developed, are marred by glaring signs of poverty. While such ‘in your face’ poverty is often taken as an example to illustrate what poverty in low-income countries looks like, poverty can also take on hidden forms: sometimes people in severe poverty live side by side in a neighborhood with well-off people. There are indeed, many faces of poverty, not only abroad, but close to home.
In short, poverty is an alarmingly global concern that affects many millions of people. It is caused and sustained by many factors, in particular by entrenched economic inequality in society. But apart from personal, bad choices that can lead to poverty, it is mostly the result of unfair and unjust political and economic systems. In our gauge of free market driven globalization, these systems exist around the world and thus, extremely lopsided distribution of wealth and deep-rooted poverty within the borders of the worlds’ richest country is no exception to the rule.