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Action Alert

Poverty in the Midst of American Prosperity

Wherever men and women are condemned to live in extreme poverty, human rights are violated. To come together to ensure that these rights be respected is our solemn duty.
—Joseph Wresinski

This quote is engraved in stone at the Trocadéro in Paris where the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed, yet the human rights of impoverished women are continually violated. Women are half of the world's population, yet they comprise 70 percent of the world's poor. Twenty-four percent of women in the United States—6.4 million women—are living in poverty. In the United States alone there are 6.3 million unemployed women, accounting for 7.7 percent of all women in the country, resulting in more impoverished families. The National Women's Law Center reports that in 2010 the average annual unemployment rate for single mothers was 12.3 percent, the highest since data have been recorded. There are now 4.4 million single-female-headed households in poverty in the United States. All of this is happening while Wall Street bonuses averaged $128,530 in 2010 and when Congress wants to defund essential services to those in poverty.

Hunger is not solely an issue for the jobless. In these troubled economic times, many of those who are poor work every single day. A report by Feeding America, a domestic hunger-relief charity, titled Hunger in America 2010 indicates 36 percent of families seeking food assistance at food banks and other service centers have at least one adult employed.

Older Americans with fixed incomes are feeling the pinch of the slumping economy coupled with rising gas and food prices. According to an AARP survey, 60 percent of Americans 65 or older are having a tougher time paying for food, gas, and medicine, and more than 10 percent have turned to families or charities for help. Federal surplus food donations fell from $242 million in 2003 to $59 million in 2007, causing the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging to report that half of its organizations have cut back on home delivered meals.

The states suffering most from poverty as determined by the Census Bureau are those in the southern and western United States. Mississippi has the highest poverty rate at 21.3 percent over the three-year period of 2007-2009, followed by Arizona (17.8%), New Mexico (17.5%) and District of Columbia (17.5%).

The poorest county in the country is Buffalo County, South Dakota, and the Crow Creek Sioux Reservation, which has an average per capita income of $5,233. While the landscape and remoteness of Buffalo County may distinguish it from impoverished urban settings, unemployment, high dropout rates and substance abuse are a common ill. Hungry children on Crow Creek Reservation are often sent to the Boys and Girls Club to eat as their families cannot afford to provide them with the proper nutrition. The people of Crow Creek feel that their plight is being overlooked because their reality is too dissimilar from average Americans.

Impoverished Americans in cities and in the country continue to struggle to understand one another, yet the federal government makes no distinction when accessing who is impoverished. The Department of Health and Human Services poverty guidelines considers a family of four with an annual income of $22,350 to be in poverty ($10,890 for single individuals). The Census Bureau sets the figure at $22,314 ($11,136 for a single individual) respectively.

On April 7, U.S. Representative Barbara Lee (CA) spoke out about the 2012 proposed budget, saying, “I have always believed that budgets reflect who we are and what we believe in, and the budget that was unveiled this week is an attack on low- and middle-income people. This is about the choices that we face in crafting our budget. Do we stand for unpaid-for tax cuts for millionaires or protecting the most vulnerable populations so that no one in our country goes to bed hungry? Do we stand for more subsidies for oil companies or job training to help put people back to work?”

Women and children were directly targeted, as $504 million was cut from the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, which provides food to pregnant women, new mothers and children under the House's 2011 federal budget. WIC served approximately 9.3 million women, infants, and children in 2009. These cuts are baffling to some who point to WIC as a means to reduce health care costs. A recent article in the Baltimore Sun points out that “economic analysis from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has shown that every $1 spent on WIC results in a savings of $1.77 to $3.13 in health care costs, primarily attributed to reduced rates of low birthweight and improved rates of immunizations.”

Such services as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly “food stamps,” will be given to the states to administer through block grants with few requirements to spend the funds on the SNAP program. This program provides families with supplemental money to purchase food. The changes in SNAP will affect 44 million Americans and 9.3 million adult women receiving benefits. The block grants would force states to provide similar benefits at 20 percent of the current SNAP spending. In order to comply with the block grant provisions, states would either have to cut benefits or cut eligibility.

Congressman Jose E. Serrano (NY-14) introduced the Anti-Hunger Empowerment Act of 2011 (H.R. 350) to ease the access to the supplemental nutrition assistance program and provide grants for the Beyond the Soup Kitchen Pilot Program in socially and economically disadvantaged populations. The bill would provide grant assistance to a primary community-based nonprofit feeding and anti-hunger group in each pilot community for purposes of allocating subgrants to other similar community-based nonprofits and to provide technical assistance grants. Representative Barbara Lee (CA-9) introduced the Food Assistance to Improve Reintegration Act of 2011 (H.R. 377) to repeal the ban on approving food stamps to a person convicted of a felony, which has as an element the possession, use, or distribution of a controlled substance.

Congress must also reauthorize the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families Act (TANF), formerly known as welfare, by September 30, 2011. This program provides families with cash to supplement their income and help lift them out of poverty. The TANF program has seen a sharp decline in its participation due to harsh sanctions imposed on impoverished families due to minor violations: 32 states impose full-family sanctions if one parent does not comply with the “job search” requirement. Legal Momentum, the women's legal defense and education fund, cites only 40 percent of eligible families and 20 percent of poor children are benefiting from TANF due to the sanctions.

A TANF reauthorization bill, HR 1167, introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Jim Jordan (OH), seeks to punish the poor by requiring them to participate in supervised unpaid work activation program for a full month as a stipulation to receiving any TANF benefits. This will hinder their ability to find gainful employment, while the House's 2011 budget cuts 3,000 job training centers, causing further difficulty in complying with TANF policies.

With the richest 10 percent of Americans holding two-thirds of the country's wealth, tax cuts for the rich are not turning into jobs for the average American. Democratic Whip Congressman Steny Hoyer (MD) along with other House Democrats are working on this year's “Make It in America” agenda: a plan to rebuild American manufacturing and create well-paying jobs. One of the bills included in the agenda is the Urban Jobs Act of 2011(S. 922) and Build America Bonds to Create Jobs Now Act (H.R. 11). These bills will help states and local governments leverage private capital to create jobs today and build the infrastructure that is the backbone of future economic growth.

Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi spoke at the unveiling of the agenda for this year's Congressional session on May 4: “I want to commend him because this ‘Make It in America' [agenda] is not just about jobs—which, our first priority [is] the creation of jobs—but honors our first responsibility to protect the American people. Stopping the erosion of our manufacturing and technological base is essential to our national security.”

Poverty does not affect people equally according to race. Black children are three times as likely to be poor than white children. Additionally, 40 percent of black children are born poor compared to 8 percent of white children, and nearly 60 percent of poor black families have at least one working family member. This poverty can tear families apart, as black children are four times more likely as white children to be placed in foster care. Poverty and homelessness are also consequences of violence against women and children. The Chicago Alliance, a nonprofit fighting homelessness, reports one-half of all homeless women and children experienced physical violence, and 92 percent of homeless mothers were victims of physical or sexual assault.

Poverty advocates such as the Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, are concerned about the growing gap between the rich and the poor. “We must speak up for the hungry and those who are most at need,” said Salguero. “This world is experiencing a crisis because of the gap between those who have and those who have not. It's our duty to speak up for them in this country and around the world.”


  • In a land of plenty, no one should fee the physcial or emotional pain of hunger. Tell your representative it's time to end poverty in America and it's time to help families. Call the congressional switchboard at (202) 224-3121 and say you want your representative's support for HR 350, HR 377, HR 11 and your senator's support for S 922.
  • Sign on to the No Hunger Campaign: nokidhungry.org.
  • Join the Circle of Protection: A statement on why we need to protect programs for the poor: circleofprotection.us.
  • Write a letter or visit your congressional district office to voice your support on poverty poverty programs.
  • Read Resolution 4092, "Statement of Concern on Poverty," from the 2008 Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church (Nashville, Tenn.: The United Methodist Publishing House, 2008).
Last Updated: 04/13/2014

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