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What Is Poverty Like in America, and What Are We Doing About It?

It's time to examine our efforts to help impoverished families move above the federal poverty line.

Millions of Americans struggle to provide for their families every year. In December 2007, at the beginning of the Great Recession in the U.S., the national unemployment rate was 5%. Two years later, the unemployment rate peaked at 10% in October 2009.1 At the same time, 42.9 million Americans2 were living at or below the government-defined poverty line, a federal benchmark that represents the minimum level of income one can make in order to survive with the bare essentials.2

Why Are So Many Americans Falling Below the Federal Poverty Level?

According to economists, there are various causes behind poverty in the U.S. The 2008 recession led to millions of people losing their jobs, businesses, homes, and life savings. Thousands of businesses closed permanently, while others were forced to lay off employees, eliminating individual positions and even full departments just to stay afloat. Millions of factory and construction jobs disappeared. After more than 7 years, the job market has still not recovered to prerecession levels.

What Is Poverty Like in America, and What Are We Doing About It?

What Are Americans Doing to Help?

Poverty is a complex, multifaceted condition, with contributing factors that include lack of education, low wages, family composition, job availability, and others. Fighting poverty in America requires a multipronged approach to improve life for the impoverished and assist them in rising above the federal poverty line.

At the federal level, the broad initiatives of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 helped to end the Great Recession by providing tax breaks for working families, increasing the amount of unemployment insurance payments, and providing billions more in funding for: 3

  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as “food stamps”).
  • Food banks.
  • Energy assistance programs.
  • Homelessness prevention programs.
  • Other antipoverty measures.

Federal, state, and local government agencies, nonprofit organizations, nongovernment organizations, private businesses, and individuals are working together to fight poverty. Here are some of the things they’re doing—and some of them are things you can do, too:

  • Creating low-income energy programs that offer utility assistance to families without electricity.
  • Donating items and money to local charities and religious organizations for poverty-stricken families in their areas.
  • Fighting against wage theft, sexual harassment, forced labor, and other types of human rights abuse in the work force.
  • Providing food, clothing, and other items of necessity directly to families in need.
  • Volunteering at homeless shelters, helping to build more shelters for displaced families, and donating food and money to support them.

Signs of Improvement

Poverty levels have certainly improved since the Great Recession. In 2018, for the first time in 11 years, the official poverty rate was significantly lower than what we saw in 2007. In 2018 there were 1.4 million fewer people in poverty than in 2017, which is the fourth consecutive annual decline in poverty.4

How a Public Policy Degree Can Help You Help Those Experiencing Poverty

Public policy degrees such as an online Master of Public Administration (MPA) or Master of Public Policy (MPP) attract those who are motivated to use their education and career to serve the public good in government and nongovernment organizations. Public policy makers help shape policies and design and implement public programs that serve diverse populations—and help improve quality of life for impoverished and at-risk families in their communities and around the U.S.

Explore Walden University's online public administration degree programs for graduates and undergraduates. Get the help you need to continue your education and advance your career goals. Earn your degree in a convenient online format that fits your busy life.