Poverty in America: Media Vs Reality
Poverty is one of the main social issues affecting people in the United States today. Nearly one in eight Americans will suffer from poverty. Poverty is the financial circumstance in which people lack adequate income to acquire essential needs for shelter, clothing, food, education and health services. You can say poverty is helplessness, it is when a person lacks representation and choice.
What if you were told to go out and help those living in poverty, how would you determine who they are? Most would probably determine an impoverished person by what they have seen or have heard portrayed by the media. How does America define poverty, and how is it measured? To comprehend poverty in America we must first be aware of the livelihood of those whom the government classifies as poor. The United States Federal Government defines poverty as income that drops beneath the poverty threshold also known as the poverty line, anyone that fall beneath that line a will be considered poor. For one person this line is drawn at an income of $10,991 dollars a year, and for a family of three its $22,025 (U.S. Census Bureau). According to the U.S. Census Bureau poverty is when a person lacks food, proper shelter, and inadequate necessities needed for survival. The poverty line was created to measure poverty in America however; most of the time can be inaccurate, mostly because the line only shows those people who fall beneath the poverty line but it cannot measure how poor they really are.
How does the media in America portray poverty? In the United States living in poverty is seen as a form of failure, humiliation, and being beneath those who live above the poverty line. Who are these people though, what images flash through your head when you think about people in poverty. There have been polls conducted in the last few decades that have shown that most Americans think that the minorities living in inner-city areas represent the majority of people living in poverty. Many Americans have very minimal or no contact with the poor whatsoever, so how did they arrive at that conclusion? Most of their opinions are more than likely formed through the media. Television, movies, the news and radio all inform millions of people every day about poverty and many other social issues. When discussing poverty the mainstream media tends to focus more on inner-city minorities than any other factor, therefore images of African American men and single women with lots of kids in the ghettos become the main face of poverty.
What is the reality of poverty in America though? A survey done by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2005 showed that more than 37 million Americans, which is about 12 percent of the population were living below the poverty line (U.S. Census Bureau). Over last two decades these percentages varied from 11.3 percent to 15.1 percent. According to the survey it showed that over the past four decades the poverty rates have increased (U.S. Census Bureau). Contrary to how the media makes inner-city minorities look like the vast majority of those living in poverty about 46 percent of all people living in poverty in the United States are white. The reason minorities are used the most when trying to put a face on poverty is because poverty rates among minorities are disproportionately high. Although 46 percent of people living in poverty are white they still one make up about 10 percent of the white population, whereas Blacks and Hispanics make up 23 percent and 22 percent respectively (U.S. Census Bureau ). I am not saying that white people are never shown to be poor though they are mostly portrayed as drug or alcohol abusers or they are suffering from a mental illness. Therefore they are seen by other white middle-class people in essence different from them. This depiction of the poor whites of having serious problem is shown to make them appear irrefutably different from the whites of a higher social class. This is where stereotypes surrounding poor people are also created by the media come into play. Everyday millions of people tune into the media for important information. The media has many forms cable, the internet, 24-hour news stations, and Newspapers. Therefore the media gains the potential to raise awareness on an issue, has the ability to educate, and can bend the public opinion in their favor. The public then views these stories and images portrayed by the media without any previous knowledge of the subject matter and except it as accurate never questioning it. Many of us have come to believe through news networks and magazines that poverty is caused because of personal problems. We have come to believe that drug addiction, people suffering for a mental disorder and alcoholism are the main reason behind people living in poverty. Images of people wandering the streets, searching through trash for food, the bums sleeping in subway stations and train carts, these images the media shows reinforce in people's minds that only middle-aged drunks and crack addicted men and women suffer from poverty. Women living in poverty are of shown as prostitutes selling their bodies for a quick fix. On shows such as Jerry Springer they present lower-class young girls and women as sexually promiscuous, dysfunctional and unruly. In fact many of these stereotypes have been proven to be false today. The media also uses images of older adults that appear to be in their late thirties and early forties. The average ages of poor people is 35 years old .Adult women do make up the large majority of the poor however most of them are between the ages of 20 and 30, and between 60 to 70 percent of them are single.
The media also never speaks about how the people who are poverty-stricken are becoming younger and younger. In the last two decades the rates of poverty among children ages 18 and younger have increased more than any other group. Children now make up about 36 percent of people living in poverty, which is about one-fourth of the U.S. population The U.S. currently has the highest rate of young children under the age of 6 suffering from poverty than any other post-industrial nation in the world. Some young children end up in poverty because they might have been tossed out by their families or abused and found their way living on the streets. Some others may have found themselves living in poverty with their families. Families do in fact make up 30 to 40 percent of the homeless in America, many of whom are single mother's raising their kids. As I mentioned before the images that media uses suggests that poverty is for the most part an urban problem. However that is not entirely, not all people living in poverty live in urban areas in fact; roughly 60 percent of impoverished people in the U.S. live in central cities, 25 percent in rural areas and about 15 percent live in suburban areas. Then there is the public notion that poverty stricken families survive with the help of welfare for years and years. This is also untrue, the only people who stay on welfare for long periods of time are people who are disabled or are unable to work. These people only make up 18 percent of the poor on welfare. Through research I also found out the remaining population of people on welfare only receive it for a short period of time (Panel Study of Income Dynamics). Also according to the Department of Health and Human Services the majority of families on welfare usually only receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) for about 18.3 months. There is also only a 4-year cash limit under TANF and during the time individuals are receiving money those with children over one must participate in a work program in order to receive benefits. This is to ensure that these people will be able to become self-sufficient once they can no longer receive funds from the organization (Department of Health and Human Services). There are also many other stories created by the media that are fictitious. When they make reports about people living in poverty and the public housing in the U.S. they report in a negative light. What the media never mentions is that nearly three-quarters of all poor families never get public housing at all, and fewer than half receive no kind of assistance at all (Hickey). Then there are the reports that make the public believe that the welfare program is overly charitable with funds. When in fact data presented by the Government refutes these very claims. The data shows that the average woman on TANF with two children only gets about $223 dollars per months, which is roughly $2676 dollars a year. 27 percent of the population living in poverty got no assistance at all; they received no cash or benefits of any kind (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2002).
How can a country that is considered the wealthiest nation on earth have so many millions of people living impoverished lives? The American media infrequently focuses on poverty and when it does take the time to report on this major issue it never explains poverty in its entirety. There are very few stories involving the issues surrounding poverty and they hardly ever get t into the mainstream reports, and when stories about living in poverty do emerge, the stories are often portrayed in a negative way and have no appropriate information. The media gives the idea that poverty is only an urban problem and does not exist outside of those areas. The truth is poverty exists in every city, every state, and in every type of neighborhood. Yes there is poverty in urban areas but, there is also poverty in suburban and rural areas as well. Poverty is not an issue of race and ethnicity, because poverty is unbiased and can affect every gender, age, race and every type of family. Poverty does not only mean that the people affected by it only lack material things, it also means that they lose social acceptance, security, self-esteem but most of all they lose their choices in life. The mass media under plays poverty, they make it seem that it is only an inner-city issue but they are wrong. Poverty is an American problem because it can affect any of us at any time, so we need to look past the stereotypes and expose the truth. We need to find a solution to this massive problem so that a child never has to go to bed hungry again, so that a mother does not have to cry over how she will feed her children. I believe Jo Goodwin Parker said it best "Poverty is looking into a black future", and every human being should be able to have a bright future.
- Department of Health and Human Services. 2006.
- Hickey, William E. Thompson and Joseph V. Society In Focus. Pearson Education, Inc., 2008.
- Panel Study of Income Dynamics. 1988-1997.
- U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2002. 2006.
- U.S. Census Bureau . "Current Population Survey." Annual Demographic Supplements. 2001 and 2002.
- U.S. Census Bureau. "Current Population Survey." Annual Social and Economic Supplements. 2005.
- "Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States." Current Population Report. August 2006.
- "Weighted Average Poverty Threshold 2008." 2009.