Acton Institute Powerblog

It’s Wealth Not Poverty That’s On The Rise

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The Census Bureau today released a report citing that 37 million Americans lived under the poverty line, a jump of 1.1 million from 2003. "I was surprised," said Sheldon Danziger, co-director of the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan. "I thought things would have turned around by now." What’s missing are the poverty threshold numbers that reveal that a family of four is considered "poor" if family income is below $19,000. What’s actually on the rise is not the number of poor people but the minimum income required for official "poverty" status. In 1980, a family of four was poor if income was below $8,400.

Anthony Bradley Anthony Bradley, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics in the Public Service Program at The King's College in New York City and serves as a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Dr. Bradley lectures at colleges, universities, business organizations, conferences, and churches throughout the U.S. and abroad. His books include: Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America (2010),  Black and Tired: Essays on Race, Politics, Culture, and International Development (2011),  The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone of the Black Experience (2012), Keep Your Head Up: America's New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation (2012), Aliens in the Promised Land:  Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions (forthcoming, 2013). Dr. Bradley's writings on religious and cultural issues have been published in a variety of journals, including: the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Detroit News, and World Magazine. Dr. Bradley is called upon by members of the broadcast media for comment on current issues and has appeared C-SPAN, NPR, CNN/Headline News, and Fox News, among others. He studies and writes on issues of race in America, hip hop, youth culture, issues among African Americans, the American family, welfare, education, and modern slavery. From 2005-2009, Dr. Bradley was Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO where he also directed the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute.   Dr. Bradley holds Bachelor of Science in biological sciences from Clemson University, a Master of Divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Westminster Theological Seminary.  Dr. Bradley also holds an M.A. in Ethics and Society at Fordham University.


  • Nick Sheltrown

    I think we need to be careful comparing 1980 dollars to 2005 dollars. Using a NASA’s CPI Inflation calculator, it’s easy to see that $8,400 in 1980 is equivalent to $19,252.80 in 2004. By contextualizing the data, we see that the standard for poverty has not undergone substantial revision (when adjusted for inflation).

    As a pragmatist, I think question should not be, “Are there more or less poor today than there were yesterday?” Rather, I think we should ask, “How can we help today’s poor?”

  • FWIW, E. Calvin Beisner has done some helpful work on the definition of poverty. His article “Poverty: A Problem in Need of Definition” was made available online by CAPO, but I’m unable to find it at the moment.

  • Nick Sheltrown is right. $8,400 in 1980 is $8,400 in today’s dollars adjusted at 4% inflation rate per year, so the poverty threshold is not rising. I think our poverty *tolerance* threshold is rising, however. That is to say, we are accepting poverty in this, the richest nation in the world. Without going into all the dynamics of why this is the case, a huge factor is that many simply accept a poverty mindset vs an abundance mindset. More on that later. lgp

  • While Nick is correct (prolly, didn’t check), I think a Purchasing Power Parity index, or the Big Mac index for short, would be better.

    Further, insofar as poor people don’t have enough “food, clothes, shelter”, there should be a standardized “poverty budget”, much like what college students need, minus entertainment. Second hand clothes, healthy (not fast) food cooked at “home”, and low rent (in a lousy district) should prolly be created for each US city of over 1 mill.

    The main problem is the “aid” mindset, rather than “wealth creation.” Poor people need jobs. Without jobs, they’ll stay poor no matter what other aid they get. With a job, they’ll prolly get out of real poverty on their own, without much other aid.

    Most aid agencies want to “fight poverty” without ever creating any wealth.

  • David Michael Phelps

    Changing the definition of poverty is not a new thing. Check out this BBC article about the changing definitions of poverty as cited on [url=]a previous blog entry[/url].

  • Rob Bennett

    Referring to “income inequality” as “poverty” mischaracterizes the latter as the former. This mischaracterization gives rise to serious errors in our assessment of poverty and provides covetousness its favorite springboard.

    If we define poverty in America by regular income, then 72 percent of poor American families have one or more cars, 50% air conditioning, 72% a washing machine, 20% a dishwasher, 93% a color TV, and 41% own their own homes.

    Compare these poor to the destitute thousands roaming the devastation that is now New Orleans. See the difference?

    When one compares the tolerable condition of America’s poor to the intolerable condition of Katarina’s victims, one can immediately see where America’s “poverty tolerance” comes from: Reason.

    If illogic and envy define poverty in America, then its cure is knowledge and faith. In the meantime, give some of your money or time to Katarina’s victims.

  • kdl

    Rob Bennett has it exactly right. I don’t think anyone would refuse to help others with the basic necessities. But the government’s definition of poverty is not what the average citizen assumes it to be. It has been said that the average single mother, on welfare, (in other words, the poorest of the poor) has luxuries undreamed of by royalty one hundred years ago. Wealth creation is the answer. Hand-outs are already happening and don’t work.

  • fran froelich

    One of the reasons that people are poorer is that the standard of living is ever higher, especially in the U.S. One’s ability to get and keep a job increasingly depends on having a car, a phone, a cell phone, and a computer (Internet service). Staying in touch with the outside world is increasingly dependent on cable tv and satallite radio. Hasn’t anyone noticed the shinking size of print media or scarcity of broadcast?
    Calling a job a ticket to wealth creation is deceptive. If that were so, there wouldn’t be as many working people needing income supports for food, shelter, and medical care.
    The only way to a better-paying job is thru higher education, but the poor are increasingly priced out, even at the community college level. Few employers are prepared to do much OJT. Even if they are, the prerequisites of getting jobs are higher.
    Employers demand relevant internships. They’re not interested in non-related job experience. But internships are generallly unpaid. This further hinders low-income students, who need the money.
    We need is to update poverty criteria.The original formula (set in 1955) was triple to cost of food. It didn’t include transportation, child care
    or utilities, all of which are necessities in 2005.