“Good land, there isn’t any more. Money, there isn’t any. What is going to happen to my children and grandchildren? This is a big worry for us.
“A lot of people are leaving here to go to the United States – about 20 percent of our village has been there, for their children.
“Today, we have no water or tortillas, so we borrow from our neighbors. This is how we help ourselves. But up north, we wouldn’t know anyone. It’s humiliation, suffering to go there. That’s my view.
“Here, we are poor, but we know each other and love each other. For example, when someone dies, we all go to the funeral. We may not have anything, but we give something anyway.”
Susana Nabor was a doctor in a poor neighborhood near Cuernavaca, in southern Mexico, where I saw Third-World poverty for the first time in January 1991. She wasn’t a trained doctor; she made medicines from herbs, flowers and trees – things she and her neighbors could afford.
Susana told her story to 16 of us on a life-changing nine-day trip that included visits to pyramids and Mexico City. We represented CROP Hunger Walks in Michigan – an annual fundraiser and educational 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) event that fights hunger locally, nationally and worldwide. We not only saw poverty, we studied its root causes.
And we learned new definitions of love from Susana and others we met on that trip. When a neighbor ran out of food, everyone pitched in because tomorrow, you may be the one without. I have seen few examples of love in my life surpassing that.
What are the root causes of poverty? Have conditions improved across the world in the past 25 years?
According to Compassion International, a survey conducted in Niger in 2002 by the Office of the Prime Minister asked the poor of that country to describe poverty. Their answers provided the following:
- Dependence, always having to seek out others or to work for somebody else.
- Marginalization, a poor person who is alone, has no support, doesn’t feel involved in anything, or is “never consulted.”
- Scarcity, having nothing to eat, lacking the means to meet clothing and financial needs, having nothing to sell.
- Restricted rights and freedoms.
- The incapacity to make decision, to feed or clothe oneself, or to act on one’s own initiative.
United Kingdom-based Christian Aid tells the stories of several children in poverty. Read their stories here:
The Washington, D.C.-based World Bank Group notes that poverty rates worldwide are improving:
- According to the most recent estimates, in 2012, 12.7 percent of the world’s population lived at or below $1.90 a day. That’s down from 37 percent in 1990 and 44 percent in 1981. This means that, in 2012, 896 million people lived on less than $1.90 a day, compared with 1.95 billion in 1990 and 1.99 billion in 1981.
- Progress has been slower at higher poverty lines. In all, 2.2 billion people lived on less than $3.10 a day in 2011, the average poverty line in developing countries and a common measurement of deep deprivation. That is only a slight decline from 2.59 billion in 1981.
Progress has been uneven:
- East Asia saw the most dramatic reduction in extreme poverty, from 80 percent in 1981 to 7.2 percent in 2012. In South Asia, the share of the population living in extreme poverty is now the lowest since 1981, dropping from 58 percent in 1981 to 18.7 percent in 2012. Poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa stood at 42.6 percent in 2012.
- China accounted for most of the decline in extreme poverty over the past three decades. Between 1981 and 2011, 753 million people moved above the $1.90-a-day threshold. During the same time, the developing world as a whole saw a reduction in poverty of 1.1 billion.
- In 2012, just over 77.8 percent of the extremely poor lived in South Asia (309 million) and Sub-Saharan Africa (388.7 million). In addition, 147 million lived in East Asia and Pacific.
- Fewer than 44 million of the extremely poor lived in Latin America and the Caribbean, and Eastern Europe and Central Asia combined.
One man in Kenya, Peter Mumo, 25, described how he overcame poverty in his drought-prone country. Read his story here:
Poverty in the United States is very real, but on a different scale. Most nations do not have safety nets to keep poor people fed, clothed and housed. The United States offers food stamps, the Affordable Care Act and other forms of subsistence aid.
Without getting into the politics of those programs, they do help – as do private programs such as homeless shelters, food banks and charitable works by individuals, groups, churches and others.
Healthcare.gov lists these federal poverty level guidelines, updated for 2015:
- $11,770 for individuals
- $15,930 for a family of 2
- $20,090 for a family of 3
- $24,250 for a family of 4
- $28,410 for a family of 5
- $32,570 for a family of 6
- $36,730 for a family of 7
- $40,890 for a family of 8
Again, while poverty in the U.S. is real, these numbers are very different than the global scale – far more than $1.90 a day. Yes, the cost of living is much higher here, but we also have numerous resources that most people across the world do not.
At least once in your life, I’d urge you to visit a Third-World country – not just Cancun, but Cuernavaca. Get away from the tourist traps and see what the world truly looks like. I have never forgotten my 1991 trip. To this day I give thanks for food on my table, a roof over my head and a clean shower whenever I want one.
Here’s a few numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau for calendar year 2014, the latest available:
- In 2014, the official poverty rate was 14.8 percent. There were 46.7 million people in poverty.
- For the fourth consecutive year, the number of people in poverty at the national level was not statistically different from the previous year’s estimates.
- The 2014 poverty rate was 2.3 percentage points higher than in 2007, the year before the most recent recession.
- Poverty rates went up between 2013 and 2014 for only two groups: people with a bachelor’s degree or more, and married-couple families.
- For most groups, the number of people in poverty either decreased or did not show a statistically significant change. The number of people in poverty increased for unrelated individuals, people age 18 to 64 with a disability, people with at least a bachelor’s degree and married-couple families.
- The poverty rate in 2014 for children under age 18 was 21.1 percent. The poverty rate for people age 18 to 64 was 13.5 percent, while the rate for people age 65 and older was 10.0 percent. None of these poverty rates were statistically different from the 2013 estimates.
- Median household income was $53,657 in 2014, not statistically different in real terms from the 2013 median of $54,462. This is the third consecutive year that the annual change was not statistically significant, following two consecutive years of annual declines in median household income. Among the race groups, Asian households had the highest median income in 2014 ($74,297). The median income of non-Hispanic White households was $60,256, and for Black households it was $35,398. For Hispanic households, the median income was $42,491.
Desiree Metcalf, 24, of Bath in western New York, provides a face to poverty in this country. NPR tells her story. Like many others who are poor, she doesn’t have just one or two problems, but a whole pile of them. She was raised by a single mother, who was also poor. Metcalf says they didn’t always get along. And things came to a head when she was 12 years old.
“My mom and I got in a fight and she told me she was going to kill me,” she recalls. “And I wrapped a belt around my neck and told her I would do it for her. I ended up in a psychiatric hospital and from there I went to foster care.”
That meant moving from home to home to home. Metcalf says she attended 26 different schools …
“I haven’t given up my dream yet. I just keep putting it on the back burner until it ain’t raining so hard, I guess,” she says.
Learn what her dream is, and the rest of her story, here:
There are many worthwhile organizations that help alleviate poverty, locally and worldwide. From CROP Hunger Walks to American Red Cross disaster relief to regional food banks (they always need donations and volunteers) to smaller local community efforts, opportunities abound.
A good friend collects clothes, food and personal items, rounds up a dozen or so friends and delivers them to homeless men in downtown Cleveland several times a year. He just sets up tables on the sidewalk, and more than 100 men come for a simple lunch, a sweater or coat, pants, shirt, socks and possibly a belt or sunglasses. I’ve gone with him twice so far. The men are grateful.
Americans are generous when disaster strikes – 9/11, hurricane Katrina and superstorm Sandy, Sandy Hook, the ice bucket challenge from last year, to name a few – but there are many causes and issues needing our support that don’t make national headlines.
Let’s serve because we can. Let’s serve because we care.