Poverty rising in the US: Where’s the outrage?

The Takeaway

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The United States is currently facing its worst poverty levels since 1983. Some 15 percent of Americans currently live below the poverty line — for an individual that’s $11,100 per year for a family of four that’s $22,000 per year. Much of the outrage over poverty, however, has been concentrated in places like Greece, England and the Middle East.

“I myself have been quite astonished that there hasn’t been any movement of people into the streets, because we have seen it in other places,” Barry Schwartz, professor of social theory and social action at Swarthmore College, told PRI’s The Takeaway.

Schwartz believes the individualistic nature of Americans may be the reason there aren’t public protests. He says when issues emerge, Americans often look to themselves to get at the cause, “the default, the automatic place we look for an explanation, is us. It’s something I did or something I didn’t do.”

When Americans don’t get jobs, many see it as a personal, rather than a structural, failure.

“In Europe, for example,” Schwartz says, “there are other models of explaining things that are based on their long history of social class as a determinant of your trajectory of life, and I think because of the power of the labor movement.”

The basic difference, according to Schwartz, is that “in Europe people look for structural explanations of their own state, and in the United States it’s always about me.”

In the United States, the poor have become invisible, according to David Shipler, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Working Poor: Invisible in America.” And he says their invisibility “depends in part on the fact that many of them do have jobs. They’re very low paying jobs. But they’re in work that we see every day.”

People tend to think that if someone has a job, they’ll be just fine. But in today’s economy, that’s not always the case.

The problems of poverty also tend to feed off of each other, according to Schipler. “There’s a high correlation, according to studies, between the lack of housing subsidies and underweight, malnourished children,” he says. “If you connect the dots among the problems of poverty, you see the interactions and you see the problems magnifying one and other.”

There needs to be more “umbrella organizations that provide assistance over a broad range of people’s problems,” according to Schipler. Schwartz, on the other hand, says people need to get angry. He says, “the only hope I see for people to actually get angry in the way that they should is for some public person to speak forcefully and bring these people together.”


“The Takeaway” is a national morning news program, delivering the news and analysis you need to catch up, start your day, and prepare for what’s ahead. The show is a co-production of WNYC and PRI, in editorial collaboration with the BBC, The New York Times Radio, and WGBH.

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