A staggering number of Americans currently live below the poverty level. In order to solve the problem of the nation’s poor, we must first understand who and where they are.
About 66 percent of poor people are white, reflecting the fact that white people outnumber people of other races and ethnic groups in the United States. About 25 percent of the people living in poverty are black. The term feminization of poverty refers to the increasing number of female-headed households living at or below the poverty level. In the 1960s, approximately 25 percent of all female-headed households were in poverty; that figure is about 50 percent today. An increasing number of children are affected by this trend. As of 2005, about 16 percent of children under age 18 live in poverty; about 80 percent of them live in households headed by a single female.
Though all states have poverty, poor people are concentrated in the inner cities and in the rural South. Social economist William Julius Wilson believes that the relatively high level of poverty in inner cities is due to the lack of jobs. He says that many companies have relocated to suburban areas or have downsized their urban operations. Still others have moved their manufacturing facilities to other countries to take advantage of cheaper labor costs and laws favoring the development of new businesses.
The rural South has a high rate of poverty for several reasons:
More than any other social class, the poor suffer from short life expectancies and health problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure, and mental illness. Reasons include the following:
Anthropologist Oscar Lewis coined the term culture of poverty, which means that poor people do not learn the norms and values that can help them improve their circumstances; hence, they become trapped in a repeated pattern of poverty. Because many poor people live in a narrow world in which all they see is poverty and desperation, they never acquire the skills or the ambition that could help them rise above the poverty level. Since culture is passed down from one generation to the next, parents teach their children to accept their circumstances rather than to work to change them. The cycle of poverty then becomes self-perpetuating.
Though the stratification system of the United States is based on class rather than on caste, some people claim that a racial caste system exists in this country. Slavery was outlawed after the Civil War, but some believe it was replaced by another prejudicial system—a caste system based on race. Though whites could no longer own slaves, they still considered themselves to be superior to people of African descent. They insisted on separate recreational, educational, and other facilities for themselves and their families and even prevented intermarriage between people of different races. Before this time, one’s race was a strong indicator of destiny, and some would say that there is still a racial caste system in the United States today.