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New Website Casts Light on Families in Poverty

Is it true or is it false that one of every five children in America lives in poverty? Again, is it true or false that the number of U.S. families living in poverty is now on the decline?

Those are just two of 14 questions in the “Poverty Quiz” found on a new and highly user-friendly website established under the auspices of the U.S. Catholic bishops to spread the word about poverty in America.

The educational site,, was launched Aug. 15 by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, an initiative of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the USCCB Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development.

True enough, the website notes, one out of five U.S. children lives in poverty. In fact, “1.6 million children stayed in a shelter or emergency housing” for some period of time last year.

It is false, however, that the number of poverty families is declining. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the poverty rate for families rose to 13.2 percent in 2010, up from 12.5 percent in 2009.

I suspect the “Poverty Quiz” could spark some stimulating kitchen-table discussions among family members who gather around a household laptop to learn who the “working poor” are in America, what the federal minimum wage is or how poverty impacts the elderly.

However, the new website also was designed with the needs of educators, group leaders and others in mind. It provides resources to help people grasp poverty’s scope and reflect on action they might take “to help create awareness about poverty in their communities.”

Poverty USA’s Population

One of every seven American households was “food insecure” last year, the new website reports. A “food insecure” household is one that “had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all their members due to a lack of resources.”

This suggests that hunger often is a problem for people living in what the website calls “Poverty USA.”

The people of Poverty USA “are family members, neighbors, colleagues — young and old, black and white, healthy and sick, rural and urban,” the website observes. These people “are not making the headlines, much less the election-year rhetoric.”

How extensive is poverty in your state or county? An interactive map allows website visitors to click on any U.S. state or county to learn the facts about poverty on the local level.

More than 46 million people live in Poverty USA, which according to the website “has the same population as Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Nevada and Nebraska combined.”

In addition, many millions more in America live close to poverty, but not at or under the official poverty line.

Poverty USA’s population is composed of “those who make less than the federal government’s official poverty threshold.” In 2010, that meant an income of $22,314 for a family of four.

Who are these people? The website notes that they include people “working at minimum wage, even holding down several jobs. Seniors living on fixed incomes. Wage earners suddenly out of work. Millions of families everywhere, from our cities to rural communities.”

Yet, says the website, “researchers estimate that it takes an income of about 1.5 to 3.5 times the official poverty level” to meet “the cost of a family’s day-to-day needs.”

Touring Poverty USA

A “Poverty USA Tour” in the form of a video surveying life’s financial realities at the poverty line is a feature of the new website that I particularly welcomed. It pointedly asks, “What’s life like at the poverty line?”

For couples, families and others in Poverty USA, making ends meet is “one impossible choice after another — between food and medicine, getting to work or paying the heating bill,” the website states. Furthermore, the economic downturn worsened an already impossible situation.

The poverty tour demonstrates the financial reality of life at the poverty line by simply adding up the costs of living and subtracting them from a poverty-level income as defined by the federal government.

The income in a family of four at the poverty line will not go “very far,” even with various subsidies, the website shows.

First, there are the costs of basic shelter, food and utilities like heating and electricity. There also are necessary transportation expenses involved in getting to work or to the store.

But that’s hardly all. While a parent is at work, there are the costs of care for younger children. Health-care expenses are another major factor. Still awaiting mention: clothing, school supplies and many other essentials.

As the days of a month pass, families at the poverty line run out of money. Food may run short. Now, the website says, many must turn to “one or more” of the federal food and nutrition assistance programs, like Food Stamps.

The website encourages visitors to help “break the cycle of poverty” in ways that lift people out of poverty for good. It says:

“Every day, thousands of people — working with their neighbors and community — are finding ways out of Poverty USA by strengthening families, creating jobs and improving neighborhoods.”

About the author 
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.