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Poverty in America

The poverty rate represents an average over the entire population.  While it provides a general number, it fails to illustrate who in particular suffers the most from poverty. Therefore, it is necessary to research and examine particular groups of people in order to find more dynamic poverty levels. Specifically, African American and Hispanic populations report higher poverty rates than the national average. The poverty rate for both of these groups remained near 30 percent of the national average during the 1980s and mid-1990s. It began to fall in 2000. The rate for African Americans dropped to 22.1 percent and for Hispanics to 21.2 percent—the lowest rate for both groups since the United States began tracking poverty levels.


The total United States population was last listed as 310,729,000. According to recent statistics, 36.5 million people, 12.3 percent of the total U.S. population, live in poverty during the past threes years. This equates that one family in eleven lives in poverty. Children make up the largest poor population in the United States, with more than 12 million living below the poverty line. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, the United States has the second highest child poverty rate of all industrialized nations. By comparison, Sweden is less than 3 percent, the Czech Republic is less than 8 percent; France is just under 8 percent and Germany is just over 10 percent. Roughly 7.2 million people living in poverty are the working poor. Most are families with children. They represent the fastest-growing population living in poverty. A study by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that children under the age of 18 accounted for 25 percent of the urban homeless. Families comprised 37 percent of the homeless population; single men and women comprised 45 percent and 14 percent respectively.


Poverty in Chicago[1]: A city of homelessness and millionaires


According to the 2007 Report on Illinois Poverty by the Mid-America Institute on Poverty of Heartland Alliance, Cook County, IL has the second-highest number of millionaire households (167,873) and the second-highest number of poor households (273,658) of any county in the nation.


For reference, there are currently 3,141 counties in the U.S. The disparity of wealth among Chicago citizens is second highest of them all. In 2006, the Chicago City Council voted for an ordinance that would have required mega-retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target to pay their workers higher wages, totaling at least $10 per hour by 2010. Mayor Richard Daley vetoed the ordinance in September of that year, in what was his first veto in 17 years in office. He reasoned it would cost the city jobs and hurt the people who need them most. In other words: a minimum wage job is still a job. Major retailers agreed they would be less likely to build stores in Chicago if the ordinance had been passed.


The minimum wage in the state of Illinois is currently $8.25an hour, considerably higher than the federal minimum wage of $7.25per hour. An estimate of the “living wage” in Chicago using the Living Wage Calculator—a computing website created by the Living Wage Project at Penn State University—puts this amount at $9.95 per hour for a single adult. Add a child to the picture, and that amount jumps to $18.13, nearly nine dollars more per hour than Illinois’ minimum wage.


Additional Resources:


Poverty in the media

More than half of Americans experience poverty at some point before they are 65


Smiley & West

Living wage for Cook County

Chicago’s growing racial gap in child poverty



[1] The following statistics are from the U.S. Census 2006 Report on Poverty and the UNICEF 2000 report of Children in Poverty.