The Continuing Problem Of Poverty

Americans have been troubled over the years by the persistence of poverty in parts of their country, despite massive efforts by the federal government and others to eradicate it. Through the Department of Labor, the federal government has defined a minimum amount of income necessary for basic maintenance of a family of four. This amount may fluctuate, depending upon inflation, the cost of living and the location of the family. In 1990, a family of four with an annual income below $13,360 was classified as being in poverty.

The percentage of persons classified as being below the poverty level dropped consistently for almost two decades -- from 1959, when it was 22.4 percent, to 1978, when it was 11.4 percent. It increased slightly from 1979 to 1983, and then resumed its descent. In 1989 the percentage of individuals below the poverty level was 12.8.

Some analysts have suggested that fewer individuals are living in poverty than the Labor Department statistic would suggest because the statistic is based solely on cash income. It does not include government-provided noncash transfers such as food stamps, health care or public housing. However, other commentators point out that in-kind transfers rarely cover all of a family's food or health care needs and that there is a shortage of public housing. Some argue that even families whose incomes are as much as 185 percent of the poverty level sometimes go hungry, skimping on food to pay for such things as housing, medical care or clothing. Still others point out that people at poverty level sometimes get cash income from casual work and in the "underground" sector of the economy, which is never recorded in official statistics.