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Misconception #3. Poverty is a static condition

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Misconception #3. Poverty is a static condition
We use statistics to capture the level of poverty at a moment in time, or to track a trend over time. But as a lived experience - especially one within families - poverty is a dynamic condition that unfolds over a lifetime, with time spent above and below the poverty line. The new measure of poverty reveals that there are almost twice as many "near poor" individuals as previously thought. In addition to the 16% of the population whose resources are insufficient to meet their needs, another 16.7%Ā  - 51 million people - have incomes less than 50 % above the poverty line, allowing them to meet only between 100% and 150% of their most basic needs without providing a cushion for emergencies.
Families with such low annual incomes are especially vulnerable to fluctuations that result from job changes, unemployment, public assistance and variations in family composition or needs. Here are several examples of the insecurity that prevails among low-income families:

  • Although the official poverty measure identified 32 million poor individuals in 2007, many more - a total of 57 million - were poor for at least two months at some point during that year.

  • Further, millions of families move in and out of "working poor" status. A study from the mid-2000s found that, in a given month, 9% of families with children were officially poor even though at least one member was employed, as were 17% of single-mother families. But over a three-year period, 25% of families with children - and 43% of single-mother families - experienced at least one spell of below-poverty income.

Thus, to use the refrigerator example, the issue is not whether one "has" a refrigerator in the family home as much as how often - if ever - the electricity for that refrigerator is cut off for failure to pay the utility bill.

Yes, poor and near-poor families may own microwave ovens, televisions or other non-necessities. But a household is not a perfect economic system, in which a responsible parent can anticipate next month's medical costs in time to sell a child's video game or forego a new pair of sneakers. The very nature of uncertainty and insecurity is that such juggling is practically - and emotionally - difficult. And even those poor families that do manage to maintain their food supplies, buy their prescription drugs, and heat their homes suffer the stress and anxiety associated with living so close to falling short.
These stresses have long-term effects. The Families and Work Institute's ongoing National Study of the Changing Workforce shows that economic insecurity is the number one predictor of overall health problems, depression, sleep difficulties, and stress among employed workers. Children who experience crowded housing conditions or multiple residential moves are more likely to display health and developmental problems. Experiencing a parent's unemployment increases a child's chance of being held back in school by 15 percent.
Poverty in the U.S. grew substantially more common during the last decade, with hardships increasing for millions of people and their families, especially with regard to food, medical care and housing. And the Great Recession at the end of the 2000s - with high unemployment and housing foreclosures - increased the level of insecurity for millions of people who were not living below the poverty line. Although most Americans do not share the level of deprivation seen at the bottom of the income scale, the broad blanket of economic anxiety that has spread across the population should spur us to think more holistically about the impact of instability and insecurity on the social, emotional and economic well-being of the population as a whole.

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