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Poverty in America

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The United States (US) is an affluent country with plenty of resources. By most standards, it is the wealthiest nation in the world often referred as the ‘proverbial promised land’. In spite of general economic prosperity, millions of Americans lack basic resources and opportunities for advancement. So poverty is a reality in America, just as it is for millions of other human beings on the planet. According to the US Census Bureau, 35.9 million people live below poverty line in America including 12.9 million children. There is no single, universally accepted definition of ‘poverty’ since experts from different fields view the concept in diverse perspectives. Valentine (1968) says that “the essence of poverty is inequality. In slightly different words, the basic meaning of poverty is relative deprivation.” A social (relative) definition of poverty allows community flexibility in addressing pressing local concerns, while objective definitions allow tracking progress and comparing one area to another. The poverty threshold or poverty line is the minimum level of income deemed necessary to achieve a decent standard of living in a given country.

Two measures of poverty are used in assessing the level of poverty of a household or even a nation; absolute measure of poverty uses a fixed, predetermined amount below which people are defined as poor, relative measure of poverty uses societal standards to assess the minimum needed for a reasonable living situation, and anything less than those standards is considered poor. In the US, an absolute measure of poverty is used (Segal, 2010). What is ‘the American Dream’? The term was first used by James Truslow Adams in his book The Epic of America. He states: "The American Dream is "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. So people continue to immigrate into the US, in search of economic prosperity and satistifying lives.

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Various theories have been advanced to explain poverty. They include; poverty caused by individual deficiencies which focuses on the individual as responsible for their poverty situation. Politically conservative theoreticians blame individuals in poverty for creating their own problems and argue that with harder work and better choices the poor could have avoided their problems. However the belief the poverty stems from individual deficiencies is old. Another theory argues that poverty is caused by cultural belief systems that support subcultures of poverty, ‘culture of poverty’. The theory suggests that poverty is created by the transmission over generations of a set of beliefs, values, and skills that are socially generated but individually held. American sociology has long been fascinated by subcultures of immigrants and ghetto residents as well as the wealthy and powerful. Technically, the culture of poverty is a social group of poor people in ghettos, poor regions, or social contexts where they develop a shared set of beliefs, values and norms for behavior that are separate from but embedded in the culture of the main society.

Child poverty is prevalent in the US where children in the female-headed households and who live in rural America have a higher probability of leading poverty stricken lives. The poverty rate for children is higher than for any other age group. Feminization of poverty, a term coined by Diana Pearce who published a paper in 1978 noting that poverty was becoming ‘feminized’ in the US. The feminization of poverty is the “growing female share of the population living under the poverty line” (Moghadam, 2005)

In conclusion, the primary cause of poverty in the United States stems from societal structuring, social or racial grouping and stereotyping, isolation from social interactions and opportunities, lack of knowledge, employment skills, education and resources. Poverty implies the lack of necessities such as basic food, shelter, medical care, and safety are generally thought necessary based on shared values of human dignity.  A fundamental reordering of priorities based on gender, geographical location and age group is the surest redress for the poor, as indeed it may be for all of us in search of a sustainable future.

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