Few topics in American society have more myths and stereotypes surrounding them than poverty, misconceptions that distort both our politics and our domestic policy making. They include the notion that poverty affects a relatively small number of Americans, that the poor are impoverished for years at a time, that most of those in poverty live in inner cities, that too much welfare assistance is provided and that poverty is ultimately a result of not working hard enough. Although pervasive, each assumption is flat-out wrong.
Contrary to popular belief, the percentage of the population that directly encounters poverty is exceedingly high. My research indicates that nearly 40 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 60 will experience at least one year below the official poverty line during that period ($23,492 for a family of four), and 54 percent will spend a year in poverty or near poverty (below 150 percent of the poverty line). Even more astounding, if we add in related conditions like welfare use, near-poverty and unemployment, four out of five Americans will encounter one or more of these events.
In addition, half of all American children will at some point during their childhood reside in a household that uses food stamps for a period of time. Put simply, poverty is a mainstream event experienced by a majority of Americans. For most of us, the question is not whether we will experience poverty, but when.