School of Public & Environmental Affairs Podcast Series
According to a recent Census report, nearly 50 million Americans were living in poverty in 2009--a whopping 16% of the population.
According to SPEA researcher Kristin Seefeldt, those numbers are not surprising, given the length and depth of the recent recession.
"Even though unemployment and benefits have been extended for a lot of individuals, for people who work in low wage jobs and may have lost those jobs, they're much less likely to qualify for those benefits, so that could be an instance of those folks slipping under the poverty line," she said.
Seefeldt's recent research focuses on Detroit, a city that's been hit especially hard by the recession. Since 2006, Seefeldt has been interviewing low-income women in Detroit as a microcosm of poverty in the United States as a whole, to learn how poor families manage when times are tough. And she found that many more of those families are struggling since the federal government cut welfare benefits.
"It's much harder to access [welfare benefits] now, and that's true across the country," Seefeldt says. "The latest statistic I saw is that only about 40% of families are receiving cash welfare payments, whereas that used to be 80-85% of eligible families. So that's a source of income that's missing."
Many Detroiters are working, Seefeldt says, but employment is sporadic. And the jobs that people manage to hold down tend to pay very little.
Although Detroit's problems are not unique, Seefeldt says that the once thriving Motor City has been particularly devastated by the recession, and is getting worse year by year.
"It's hard to see little kids playing in piles of junk," Seefeldt says. "I've watched what I assume are contractors come and dump garbage in empty lots. But people still live in those neighborhoods. So its become both neglected and used as a garbage can for other parts of southeastern Michigan."
Unlike in Western Europe, where ample safety nets paid for by high taxes keep poverty rates relatively low, the United States has placed the burden of upward mobility mainly on individuals. So why should well-off Americans care about their less fortunate fellow citizens?
"We as a nation should probably be very concerned about what it says about social cohesion if we have a huge swath of the country that's cutoff from opportunity," Seefeldt says. "Can long term stability of our nation really happen if we're so divided?"
Learn more about poverty in the United States.