Poverty in America – best measured by a misery index

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Rev. Melvin White, pastor of Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in Natchez and 1st Vice President, General Missionary Baptist State Convention of Mississippi, is shown laying an original stone of Natchez College Chapel in front of the podium at the announcement of a $750,000 restoration grant. “We can’t cover up the bricks laid by former slaves. We must preserve Natchez College,” affirmed Rev. Isiac Jackson (at podium), former president, GMBSC. (Photo by Darek Ashley)

The U.S. Census Bureau’s website has a page entitled “National Poverty in America Awareness Month: January 2023”. The Bureau reports that of the 332 million people residing in the USA 37.9 million live in poverty. 

Essentially, government agencies determine poverty by looking at the number of people living in a household and their combined income. For example, if four people live in a household and have about $30,000 of income combined, then those persons are considered living in poverty.

The faces of the poor portrayed in many news media accounts often are of people living in densely populated urban areas. They are photographed while waiting in line to obtain a free meal or clothing.

Less frequently are the faces of the poor living in rural communities seen. Their voices seldom are heard.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that 46 million people live in rural areas. Definitions of “rural” vary. However, common sense tells us these communities are not densely populated. 

Rural Health Information Hub reports that 15.4% of the people living in rural areas had incomes below the poverty level.  When considering race, the percentage jumps to 30.7% for African Americans.

Although poverty is determined by income, perhaps a better description of poverty is a “misery index”. Some see a misery index as a way to better understand poverty by considering inflation and unemployment rates. Others view a misery index as incorporating additional factors such as access to health care and educational services.

When using a broader or expanded definition of a misery index, it appears African Americans living in rural areas rank highest on this index.

According to the Rural Health Information Hub, among the barriers to healthcare access are lacking the financial means to pay for health services and transportation to reach the health service providers. 

Nearly 20 million students attend rural schools. Among the challenges these students face is access to the educational tools available on the internet.

The inability to access healthcare services when needed and students’ internet access, when factored into a definition of poverty, provide a sharper image of rural poverty. There are more hurdles – making it far more difficult to reach above the poverty line.

But a misery index too should include lacking the ability to have their voices heard by policymakers on matters including infrastructure, support for small family farmers, and weather disaster assistance affecting crops and livestock.

At least 11 percent of the population in the USA do not need to be reminded in January that they live in poverty. The question is: What are we as a nation going to do about it in February? 

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Poverty in America – best measured by a misery index

By Dr. Anne Sulton, Esq.
January 31, 2023