The Facts


Skid Row in Los Angeles, CA

Poverty in Democracy

(Facts excerpted from the The Atlantic)

The individuals interviewed for the Poor (in) Democracy project are members of an impoverished underclass—50 million strong—whose ranks have swelled since the Great Recession to the highest rate and number below the poverty line in nearly 50 years. Nearly half of them—20.5 million people, including each of the people mentioned above—are living in deep poverty on less than $12,000 per year for a family of four, the highest rate since record-keeping began in 1975. Add to that the hundred million citizens who are struggling to stay a few paychecks above the poverty line, and fully half the U.S. population is either poor or “near poor,” according to the Census Bureau.

Economically speaking, their poverty entails a lack of decent-paying jobs and government supports to sustain a healthy life. With half of American jobs paying less than $33,000 per year and a quarter paying poverty-line wages of $22,000 or less, even as financial markets soar, people in the bottom fifth of the income distribution now command the smallest share of income—3.3 percent—since the government started tracking income breakdowns in the 1960s. Middle-wage jobs lost during the Great Recession are largely being replaced by low-wage jobs—when they are replaced at all—contributing to an 11 percent decline in real income for poor families since 1979. For the 27 million adults who are unemployed or underemployed and the 48 million people in working poor families who rely on some form of public support, means-tested government programs excluding Medicaid have remained essentially flat for the past 20 years, at around $1,000 per capita per year. Only unemployment insurance and food stamps have seen a marked increase in recent years, although both are currently under assault in Congress.

Socially speaking, poor people occupy a space apart from mainstream. For the nearly one in four children who are impoverished, hunger and homelessness, absent and incarcerated parents, violence, and substance abuse are regular facts of life. These and other “toxic stressors” contribute to high-school dropout rates of around 50 percent and college-graduation rates of less than 10 percent for people in poverty—five times worse than upper-income youth. Without a high-school diploma, poor children are four times more likely than their college-educated peers to be unemployed and 10 to 20 times more likely to end up behind bars. Regardless of high-school completion and criminal status, close to half of all people raised in persistent poverty remain poor at the age of 35, transmitting the same status to their kids, while less than four percent join the upper-middle class. Even their health is affected: Prior to implementation of the Affordable Care Act, around four in 10 Americans in poverty or who lack a high-school diploma also do not have health insurance—four times the rate among non-poor people—and one third of all deaths are estimated to result from poverty and low-education.

  • Nearly 50 million Americans live in poverty on less than $24,000 per year for a family of four
  • Nearly half of all Americans are within a few lost paychecks of the poverty line, below $44,000 for a family of four
  • Nearly 1 in 4 American children are currently living in poverty
  • A quarter of all American jobs pay less than the poverty line for a family of four
  • 95% of Americans agree that everyone should have an equal opportunity to get ahead



Las Cruces, NM

Democracy in Poverty

Poverty in the United States is not just an economic or social concern. As the Poor (in) Democracy project explores, the poverty that tens of millions of “second-class citizens” nationwide, experience is also political. It is embedded in the structure of American society and maintained by an unequal distribution of political power. Half a century after civil rights, nearly 10 million voting-age citizens are denied the right to vote or voting representation in Congress; 16 million immigrants of voting age have no formal stake in the political process; and tens of millions more law-abiding citizens are informally excluded from voting and other forms of participation. Meanwhile, the politicians on whom they rely do not rely on them: A tiny fraction of wealthy Americans lobbies the federal government while fewer than one percent provides the lion’s share of campaign funds.

  • Poor citizens are 7x less likely to engage in politics than wealthy citizens
  • 10% of black men, mostly poor, are legally barred from voting due to past conviction 
  • Less than 1% of citizens give over 80% of the billions of dollars that fund US campaigns
  • 5 wealthy interests accounted for 59% of outside SuperPAC spending in the 2012 election

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