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Fewer Americans Living in Poverty

Fewer people in the US are living in poverty. According to the October 2017 annual report of the Hamilton Project of the Brookings Institute, the number of Americans living in poverty declined by 13%, or 6 million people, in the two years from 2014 to 2016. That’s encouraging news.

Not so encouraging is that 40.6 million people still live under the government poverty level. This is about one out of every eight Americans. The department of Health and Human Services sets the poverty rate at $32,580 or less for a family of six and $16,020 or less for two people.

Who are those officially classified as poor? According to IPUMS, an organization associated with the University of Minnesota which integrates worldwide census data, 33% are children under age 18 and 11% are seniors over age 65. So 56% of those living in poverty are of working age, ages 18-65.

Of those who are working age, 21% are disabled, 15% are caregivers, 13% are students, and 10% are early retirees or unclassified, which leaves 41% available to work full time. This is 24% of all people who are in poverty, or about 9.8 million people.

Of that 9.8 million, 65% work part time, 25% work full time, and 10% don’t work. This means just under one million of the 40.6 million people in poverty are actually able to work but unemployed.

Something I found interesting was that of the 65% who work part time, two-thirds (4.3 million) choose to do so and only one-third (2.1 million) would like to work full time. If we add the one million who are unemployed and the 2.1 million part time workers who want full time employment, we have 3.1 million people in poverty who would like to work full time, but can’t find work. This is just 7.4% of all people considered to be below the poverty level.

That leads me to wonder what might change if the 4.3 million choosing to work part time actually worked full time. Might a significant portion of them pull themselves and their families out of poverty? Is it possible that many of these people choose to live in poverty? Or might some of them choose to work part time because earning more would be countered by factors like higher child care costs or losses in government benefits? While I don’t have any statistics on this, I have a hunch it is both.

Keven Winder, a life coach who blogs at thriveinexile.com, has a post from June 2017 titled “The Poverty of the Poor.” He says, “The cause of poverty is not solely education, politics, or the need for jobs. It’s not mental illness, addiction, housing, or food programs,” which he contends are by-products of poverty. “Poverty is deeper. Poverty is disengagement from that which powers us.”

It seems to me that Winder is using “disengagement” to mean what might be described as emotional poverty. The type of emotional disengagement that helps keep people in poverty may be no different from that of a person who earns a comfortable income but chooses not to save for retirement. Or someone who loses a job but has too much false pride to take a lesser one even temporarily.

We know the cure for financial behaviors based in emotional disengagement is not more information. Those choosing to work part time and live in poverty don’t need budget figures on how earning more would increase their standard of living. The behavior goes much deeper and is emotionally entrenched.

Certainly, financial therapy might make a difference. Unfortunately, it’s still unavailable for too many of those who need it the most.

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