50 Facts about Poverty


Fifty Facts About Poverty

  1. In 1991, the United States had approximately 35.7 million people living below the poverty level. This represents 14.2 percent of the Nation's population (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1992).

  2. One in five children (14.3 million) lived in poverty in 1991, the highest number since 1965. The majority of poor children are white; most have a parent that works; and most live outside large cities, in rural and suburban America (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1992).

  3. Children in poverty have poor parents who are less able than other parents to fulfill their responsibilities because they have few economic, personal, and social resources. The problems of children in poverty will probably not be met without addressing the needs of poor families.

  4. The United States, compared to other countries, ranks 20th in infant mortality (UNICEF, State of World's Children, 1992, U.S. Data from NCHS, 1991).

  5. The United States, compared to other countries, ranks 17th in the world in percentage of 1-year-olds fully vaccinated against polio (UNICEF State of the World's Children Report 1993, 1992, U.S. Immunization Survey, 1985).

  6. The United States, compared to other countries, ranks 14th in life expectancy and 4th in literacy (Howell, B., 1990).

  7. The United States has one of the highest degrees of inequality in distribution of income (Smeeding, T.M., O'Higgins, M., & Rainwater, L., 1990).

  8. The United States has the highest proportion of single- parent families; nearly one child in four now lives with one parent (Hobbs, F., & Lippman, L., 1990).

  9. The United States has higher child poverty than seven other major industrialized western countries (UNICEF, State of the World's Children Report 1993, 1992). The U.S. child poverty rate is dramatically higher than those of Canada, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

  10. In 1989, 39,655 infants died in the United States before their first birthday. In 1989, the infant mortality rate was 9.8 deaths per 1,000 live births (National Center for Health Statistics, 1991). Each year, an estimated 10,000 American children die from poverty's effects (The State of American Children, 1992).

  11. America's wealth as measured by the gross national product (GNP) reached an all-time high in 1990. Between 1979 and 1989, GNP grew by more than one-fourth, but child poverty increased by 21 percent (Johnson, C.M., Miranda, L., Sherman, A., & Weill, J.D., 1991).

  12. The United States spent more than 11 percent of its gross national product on health in 1988 (Health Care Financing Administration, Office of National Cost Estimates, 1990). Even so, many American children suffer from health problems, and these children are disproportionately poor or near-poor.

  13. About half of the Nation's poor in 1991 were children under 18 years of age (40.2). Children are almost twice as likely to be poor than any other group of Americans, including the elderly (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1992).

  14. The population aged 85 and over, has quintupled since 1950 and will double again by 2010. By 2030, more than 1 in 5 Americans will be aged 65 and older. Women are "on the front lines" of the aging trend not only because they make up a majority of the elderly, but because they are the main providers of care paid and unpaid to growing numbers of frail and disabled very-elderly persons. (Allen, J., & Pifer, A., ed., 1993).

  15. In 1991, the poverty rate among children in female-headed families was 55 percent, more than five times the rate among married-couple families (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1992).

  16. Some 20 percent of "poverty spells" of children begin with birth. When it does, it lasts for 10 years. The average poor Black child today appears to be in the midst of a poverty spell that lasts for almost 2 decades (Bane, M.J., & Ellwood, D.T., 1983).

  17. The majority of poor persons in 1991 were white (66.5 percent). A black child is more likely to be poor than a white or Latino child. For children younger than 18 years old, the poverty rate in 1991 was 16.8 percent for white children, 40.4 percent for children of Hispanic origins, and 43.9 percent for black children. (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1992).

  18. About 34.9 percent of the Nation's poor in 1991 lived in areas of high poverty concentration (poverty areas). While the majority of the 12.5 million poor poverty area residents lived in central cities (60 percent), 26.1 percent lived outside metropolitan areas, and 13.9 percent lived in suburban areas (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1992).

  19. In 1992, nearly 40 percent of children were not covered by employer health insurance (Children's Defense Fund, 1992). Despite the existence of Medicaid, 28.6 percent of the poor in 1991 reported they had no medical insurance of any kind during 1991 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1992).

  20. Early childhood experiences contribute to poor children's high rate of school failure, dropout, delinquency, early childbearing, and adult poverty (National Center for Children in Poverty, 1990).

  21. Poor families are less likely to have nutritionally adequate diets than nonpoor families. Children who have inadequate diets lag in growth and have more frequent, more severe, and longer-lasting infectious diseases. Inadequate nutrition, including iron deficiency (with or without anemia), may also affect cognitive development and social behavior, with undernourished children being more apathetic (Kotch, J., & Shackelford, J., 1989).

  22. Poor children are believed to experience mental and emotional problems more frequently than nonpoor ones (Gould, M.S., Wunsch-Hitzig, R., & Dohrenwend, B., 1981). The 1987 report, Children's Mental Health: Problems and Services, noted the relationship between poverty and minority group membership and environmental stresses. These stresses posed risks to children's mental health (Dougherty, D.H., Saxe, L.M., Cross, T., & Silverman, N., 1987).

  23. The 1985 Nationwide Food Consumption Survey revealed that black children 1-5 years of age from families below 130 percent of poverty were more likely than black children of all incomes to be below the 1980 Recommended Dietary Allowances of the National Academy of Sciences, Food and Nutrition Board, for mean intakes of food energy, calcium, iron, and zinc (U.S. Department of Agriculture, Human Nutrition Information Service, 1985).

  24. Data from NHANES I (1971-1975) and NHANES II (1976-1980) provide several measures of child growth. Among 1-to-5- year-olds, poor children had lower values than nonpoor children for height, weight, and triceps skinfold thickness. The magnitude of many of the poverty-related differences decreased between the two surveys, but these changes did not reach statistical significance (Jones, D.Y., Nesheim, M.C., & Habicht, J.P., 1985).

  25. Fifty-one percent of the students reported smoking their first cigarette in the eighth grade or below. Those who tried alcohol for the first time in the eighth grade or below were 67 percent (American School Health Association, Association for the Advancement of Health Education, & Society for Public Health Education, 1989). Every 12 seconds of the school day, one American child dropped out (380,000) (Children's Defense Fund, 1992).

  26. Teenage women who are poor and who have below-average basic skills, regardless of their race, are five-and-a-half times more likely to have children than nonpoor teenage women with average or better basic skills (National Longitudinal Survey, 1981, calculation by Center for Labor Market Studies, Northeastern University) (Johnson, C.M., Miranda, L., Sherman, A., & Weill, J.D., 1991).

  27. One-quarter of all American children are born out of wedlock, and 40 percent of them will live in a single-parent family before they reach their 18th birthday (Special Report, Business Week, 1988).

  28. In 1989, more than 27 percent of all births were to unmarried mothers. The percentage of births by unmarried women in 1989 was 64 percent higher than in 1980 (National Center for Health Statistics, Monthly Vital Statistics Report, 1990).

  29. The 1988 National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) revealed that 39.9 percent of the births in the 3-4 years prior to the survey were unintended. The proportion of births that were unintended, including both unwanted and mistimed, declined as income rose. For those families living below the federal poverty line, the proportion of unintended births was 58.6 percent (Forrest, J.D., & Singh, S., 1990).

  30. The 1989 teen birth rate of 58.1 births per 1,000 teenagers, was the highest teen birth rate since 1970 (National Center for Health Statistics, 1990). Single-parent teenage families impose a large and lasting burden on society. Beyond the obvious dollar costs to the public sector, estimated at over $16 billion annually, are other social costs imposed on mothers and infants whose potentials and lives are blighted (Abrahamse, A.F., Morrison, P.A., & Waite, L.J., 1988).

  31. About 68,000 children and youths are homeless and 186,000 are living in shared housing at a given time (U.S. General Accounting Office, 1989).

  32. In the 29 cities surveyed, the demand by families with children increased to 82 percent and just over two-thirds of those requesting emergency food assistance were families with children. Forty-six percent of the cities reported they were unable to provide adequate quantities of food (The United States Conference of Mayors, 1992).

  33. More than 250,000 children in this country are living apart from their families in foster families, group homes, residential treatment centers, and child care institutions. A disproportionate number are minority children. Increasing numbers of young children, often younger than age 2, are entering public care in many States. Many are babies born to drug- abusing parents, and are at high risk for medical and developmental problems. Some States also are reporting growing numbers of teens living apart from their families. Compared with such children in the past, young people in public care have more severe physical and emotional problems and a greater need for specialized services (Children's Defense Fund, A Vision for America's Future, 1989).

  34. Eighty percent of children in foster care have experienced physical and sexual abuse or neglect (American Academy of Pediatrics, 1987). While child mistreatment often goes undetected in some middle- and upper-class families, there is an important association between poverty and child maltreatment (U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, 1988).

  35. Nearly two-thirds of all poor families with children spend more than half their income on housing (American Housing Survey, calculation by Center for Labor Market Studies, Northeastern University) (cited in Johnson, C.M., Miranda, L., Sherman, A., & Weill, J.D., 1991).

  36. In 1991, 54 percent of all poor families were maintained by women with no husband present. Among poor black families, 78.3 percent were maintained by women with no husband present, and for families of Hispanic origin, the comparable figure was 45.7 percent (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1992).

  37. Being a woman increases one's chances of being poor by 60 percent. If one is also black or Hispanic and has a work history of being poorly paid, the chances of falling below the government's poverty threshold escalates. Nearly three- quarters (72 percent) of all the poor over age 65 are women (Older Women's League, 1988).

  38. The poverty rate for persons 65 years and over was 12.4 percent in 1991. Though the poverty rate for the elderly was lower in 1989 than that for the nonelderly, a higher proportion of elderly than nonelderly were concentrated just over their respective poverty threshold (i.e., between 100 percent and 125 percent of their threshold). Consequently, 19.1 percent of the Nation's 11.8 million "near poor" persons was elderly, compared with about 10.1 percent of persons below the official poverty level (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1992).

  39. Poverty, lack of education, and access barriers to health care predispose many American minorities to disproportionate mortality and morbidity (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1985). A black infant born in the United States is 3.8 times more likely to die as a result of homicide and 3.2 percent times as likely to die from meningitis than white babies (National Center for Health Statistics, 1989).

  40. American Indian and Alaskan native elders have a poverty rate of 61 percent and a life expectancy between 3 and 4 years less than that of the general older U.S. population (U.S. Senate, Older Americans Act Amendments of 1987, 1987).

  41. Hispanics are the fastest growing minority in the United States. Poverty and lack of health insurance are the greatest impediments to health care for Hispanics (Council on Scientific Affairs, 1991).

  42. AIDS was the sixth leading cause of death among those 15 to 24 years of age in 1989, yet experts fear that teenagers' feelings of invulnerability are causing many of them to ignore the risk of unprotected sex (National Center for Health Statistics, 1992).

  43. In most states, fewer than 60 percent of 2-year-olds are fully immunized (Children's Defense Fund, Summer 1992 Survey of State Immunization Programs). Since 1988, American teenage boys have been more likely to die from gunshot wounds than from all natural causes combined (National Center for Health Statistics, 1991).

  44. Poverty rates decrease dramatically as years of school completed increases: in 1991 the poverty rate was 24.2 percent for householders who had not completed high school, 10.5 percent for those who had graduated from high school but not attended college, and 6.5 percent for those with 1 or more years of college (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1992).

  45. One-fourth of all children born in the United States will be on welfare some time in their lives. Educating America's future work force reaches beyond the classroom (Special Report, Business Week, 1988). Early childhood experiences contribute to poor children's high rate of school failure, dropout delinquency, early childbearing, and adult poverty (National Center for Children in Poverty, 1990).

  46. About 43.6 percent of the poor received cash assistance through such programs as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) in 1991. A Federal study in 1988 estimated there were only enough low-skill job openings in the Nation to employ one out of six AFDC recipients who might be expected to work under the Family Support Act of 1988.

  47. The needs of the American workplace and the needs of the disadvantaged may be merging for the first time in recent history. The drive to raise productivity and increase international competitiveness is transforming the debate over social equity into a discussion about economic growth (Special Report, Business Week, 1988). Two-year and technical colleges offering degrees below a bachelors will be significant factors in the technological growth of communities (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1989).

  48. One in five poor families with children cannot escape poverty even though the head of household works full time throughout the year (Johnson, C.M., Miranda, L., Sherman, A., & Weill, J.D., 1991). The median income of young families with children (headed by someone younger than age 30) dropped 32 percent between 1973 and 1990. In 1991, 39.8 percent of poor persons 15 years and over worked, and 9 percent worked year-round, full time (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1992).

  49. In 1991, in 5.8 percent of all poor families, at least one person worked, and in 1.3 million poor families (16.8 percent of all poor families) there were two or more workers in 1991 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1992). The educational level of parents is closely associated with child poverty. Parents who have not completed high school are less likely to be employed steadily than parents with more education. The former also tend to earn less when employed (Johnson, C.M., Miranda, L., Sherman, A., & Weill, J.D., 1991).

  50. Poverty is associated with social circumstances that influence health. These may include limited parental education, extramarital births or single parenthood, adolescent parenthood, and, for minority groups, racial or ethnic discrimination. These economic and social burdens can engender feelings of despair and powerlessness that hinder healthy behavior (Klerman, L.V., & Parker, M., 1991).

  51. Three broad problems recur throughout the literature on homicide, assault, and suicide: (1) poverty, racial discrimination, and sex discrimination; (2) cultural acceptance of violence, and; (3) ready available lethal agents (Rosenberg, M.L., Gelles, R.I. Holinger, P.C., Zahn, M.A., Stark, E., Conn, J.M., Fajman, N.N., & Karlson, T.A., 1987).


Written by Nancy Leidenfrost, National Program Leader, USDA Extension Service, nleidenf@esusda.gov , 2-1-1993.

Compilation and HTML by Daniel_Zalik@brown.edu