The Irony of Equal Opportunities: The Insufficiency of Programs to Overcome Poverty in the United States of America

image credits to Dorthea Lange

“Poverty is the worst form of violence.” Many people may dispute about the validity of this statement from India’s greatest man, Mahatma Gandhi – particularly when used in the context of American poverty. Indeed, one might contend that the United States of America, being one of the advanced nations of the world does not experience poverty in the same extent as that with the other developing nations of the world.

Yet, most Americans defined poverty in the manner by which several people around the world defined destitution: an inability to provide a family with nutritious food, clothing, and reasonable shelter (Rector & Johnson, 2004). Though the severity and scope of American poverty is significantly different from the third world contexts, it remains to be an insurmountable challenge to human development in the United States of America; it’s eradication remains to be an empty campaign slogan, and the programs designed to combat it seems to be always incomplete.

While government programs in the United States of America encompass comprehensive strategies in providing social safety nets for the poor, they remain insufficient measures in overcoming poverty. Changes in American demographics produce demands for social services that are incompatible with the range of welfare programs being offered by the government and social benefits become futile attempts to address disparities due to inaccurate targeting and under-coverage (Curie, 2004).

Using this framework, the researcher will be examining the dynamics of poverty in the United States of America and evaluate whether US government programs sufficiently address the complex requirements for poverty alleviation. This paper will look at the dynamics of American poverty, the interplay of several factors in the economy and society, and the government’s role in ensuring that its citizens are provided with the social benefits of its citizenry. Should a society – in spite of the progress that it has achieved in the realms of scientific and social development, endure its fateful co-existence with the poor? The researcher will strive to answer this question in this paper.

Poverty – as defined by the Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English is the state of being extremely poor. This evidently falls short if one is to look upon the extent for which being “extremely poor” has been implied. According to Eluerkeh (2004) in a paper presented at the World Bank Video Conference on Poverty Reduction, poverty does not only consist of the economic facet – but of generally wider aspects of human development pertaining health, politics and education. In the context of the United States of America, where democracy has enabled people from all statures of life to capably exercise their political rights, this paper will thus be focused on examining poverty in the economic, health and educational aspects and the programs that seek to address them.

The medium for which the services are carried out is most commonly referred as the welfare system. In the American vocabulary however, welfare was often limited with the public assistance to mothers with dependent children (Geary, 2003). This paper will therefore be transcending this definition and discuss about the collection of different programs that address the areas of health, unemployment insurance, pensions, social security, and family support in the United States of America. While several European countries adopted the idea of the welfare state and are presently working within a socially democratic framework of social service provision, the American Welfare system is still developing, less extensive, haphazardly constructed, and reliant upon dispersed authority (Geary, 2003).

The Economic and Social Measures of American Poverty

The welfare system in the United States of America evolved from a residual framework to combat the ill effects of the Great Depression in the previous era. Government welfare was also connected with race and culture and has characteristically attributed poverty to the moral failings of the individual (Geary, 2003). There was also a delineation of the benefits being received – based on the merit of being deserving or not in a given program framework. Social insurance became safety net measures for those who may be facing emergencies such as unemployment and those who have retired and receiving pension in their old age. Public assistance, however, became the government’s response for those who do not fall within the category of social insurance – the major recipients of which are dependent children and women, who may be further marginalized by racial discrimination and unemployment.

In the economic perspective, wealth and poverty are measured according to income, assets, and socioeconomic metrics – human development aspects such as nutrition, infant mortality, sanitation, etc. (Gorman, 2003). In this aspect, the poor are being identified through the use of poverty threshold, a point of measurement which indicates the boundaries between the poor and non-poor. While the basic need for shelter, decent food and clothing, access to health care and education may be an indication of being non-poor in the usual third world context, such does not become and automatic indicator of poverty in the United States of America. Income inequality is a major economic issue for several developed nations and has been attributed as one of the primary causes of poverty.

Income inequality, according to Gorman (2003) is the disparity of income among individuals and households in a given economy. As a developed nation, the United States is also beset with issues on income inequality. Yet, like the third world nations, it is still struggling to provide the very basic public assistance to those who need it – food stamps, Medicare and Medicaid, and compulsory public education. Thus, while the American society is considered to be one of the most powerful forces of the world to reckon with, its welfare system remains to be dismally mediocre, compared with its European counterparts. The glaring example of this is the life of the rural poor of Appalachia extensively documented by Cynthia Duncan (1999) in her book entitled Worlds Apart: Why Poverty Persists in Rural America. As Duncan (1999) pointed in one of her interviews:

“These histories of underinvestment, which most Americans would not want to see today, are now still playing out in contemporary isolation for poor people, preventing them from being able to get together what it takes to be part of the mainstream. The adults are under-educated, the institutions are poor and inadequate to make up for what families do not offer young people, and everyday life for these kids is just plain hard (Frontline, 2005).”

Ultimately, the economic issues of poverty spell the quality of life in the United States. There are plenty of studies that reveal how poverty has a direct correlation with crime, dysfunctional families, poor health, drug addiction, illiteracy and the continuing cycle of destitution. The social repercussions of poverty are hard to manage and as such, welfare systems need to be instituted: their sufficiency, however, remains to be a vision that is yet to be realized.

Intergenerational Poverty and Its Effects to the US Society

According to a study published by the Friends Committee in National legislation in 2009, there are 37 million people in the United State who are living at or below the federal poverty line. This involves children and grown-ups, who subsist below the average daily requirement for living and are dependent from government support. Because poor people generally have lower productivity than the non-poor (Holzer, Schanzenbach, Duncan & Ludwig, 2007), the 37 million people already represents a social loss in terms of economic and human potentials. One could only imagine these figures further rise up, when given the lack of social opportunities and access to education and basic services, the children out of the 37 million figure grow up to be poor as well, raise children in the same condition and be deprived of the same social and economic opportunities.

While economic and social deprivation runs counter to the moral principles of liberalism and democracy, it is an undeniable fact that the amount that the United States of American government allocates for poverty alleviation and prevention figures less than the cost of not addressing poverty (Holzer, Schanzenbach, Duncan & Ludwig, 2007). As a matter of fact, the government loses about $500 billion a year for not adequately investing on social programs that would address child poverty alone – an equivalent of nearly 4 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (Holzer, Schanzenbach, Duncan & Ludwig, 2007). This is a vital point – for it reveals much on the government’s real commitment in bringing about a desired change in the social condition of its people.

The Government’s Response

The US government institutes four basic programs in order to combat inequality and poverty among households. These include progressive income tax, public assistance programs, economic development programs and economic management measures (Gorman, 2003). The income taxes that people pay are based on incomes. Thus those who earn more pay more taxes. In this manner, the resources are re-distributed to the poor through the form of public assistance and social insurance programs. Economic development programs on the other hand, are government interventive services to small business – particularly those women-owned businesses. These programs also include training unskilled workers and development of enterprise zones that would encourage small merchants to start their own businesses (Gorman, 2003). While economic management does not directly benefit the poor, unemployment issues are generally addressed and prevented through a sound economic management.

Poverty alleviation also encompasses several methods such as education, social work, community organizing and legislation. In spite of this, the United States provides significantly lower level of government support than most developed European nations. This may be founded on the ideologies of governments for which the welfare systems are evidently based. In the European nations for instance, welfare is conceived in a social democratic framework of the acceptance of the need to provide a buffer for people who may be vulnerable to the ill effects of capitalism. In the neo-conservative and libertarian framework that is prominent in the US democratic society however, the people are conceived as the authors of their own destiny and that while democracy allows for “equal opportunities,” the failure of an individual to meet his/ her primary requirements is basically attributed to his/ her own doing and not as a state responsibility. While social supports such as food stamps, cash assistance and health insurance have been proven to promote the basic needs of the poor for public assistance, there is a need to further streamline the service delivery mechanisms and improve the framework for which these services are carried out. As a democratic country that is anchored in the main philosophies of liberalism, the people should be given sufficient rights to participate in the planning and implementing of the services that they need in order to transform them – from being mere recipients of benefits but as individuals who are self-determined to elevate their own status in the society. Apart from this, there is a need to improve targeting mechanisms to ensure that the people who really need the assistance would be the recipients of services (Curie, 2004). America does not need to adopt the social democratic ideals of its European nations, it only needs to truly practice the real essence of democracy and mobilize the people in order to help them help themselves.


In spite of the government efforts to alleviate poverty, the growing needs of the changing demographics remain to be inconsistent with the programs being implemented. This may be attributed by the lack of government intervention in key areas of poverty prevention such as in the child welfare and community organizing setting and the state’s incognizance of the fact that intergenerational poverty generates a substantial loss to the US economy and society. While some may attribute it to political will, the researcher believes that it is hinged upon the democratic ideology of the United States of America as a nation. Because the United States recognizes the promotion of equal opportunities for all, it automatically believes in the assumption that the failings of an individual may be attributed to his/ her own shortcomings and not on the inability of the state to institute the necessary welfare mechanism. However, this could be overcome by practicing the principles for which liberalism is founded that is – truly making an avenue for equal opportunity and by empowering the people make their own choices in the areas of welfare. Through this, the people will no longer be mere recipients of social services but the government’s partner for poverty alleviation.

Annotated Bibliography of Three Sources

—- (July 2004). “Poverty, The Distribution of Income and Public Policy.” Ed: A.J. Auerbach, D. Card, & J.M. Quigley. University of California, Berkeley. Accessed 26 January 2010 from

The editors of the paper combined poverty studies of authors from the University of California, Berkeley in order to present an integrated view of the developments of anti-poverty measures in the United States of America. The authors discussed issues regarding targeting mechanisms employed during welfare provision, its impact to the achievement of goals, the reasons behind the prevalence of poverty in the United States of America and the economic patterns of income and wealth among the rich as one the fundamental reasons of income inequality. While the authors believe that there is a need to further strengthen America’s welfare system, they also illustrate several programs that were able to achieve its targets notwithstanding the socioeconomic conditions of the given periods.

Gorman, T. (2003). The Complete Idiots Guide to Economics. New York: Alpha Books

The author provides the book with easy-to-understand, uncomplicated and well-defined concepts of poverty in the economic context. The author adhered that as a developed nation, the United States of America’s main reason for poverty lies on the income inequalities prevalent among capitalist economies. The author likewise stressed the major programs of the nation in responding to the complications brought by poverty and income inequality. The author’s explanations, however, remained to be centered on the economic facet of poverty and not on other social preconditions that correspond with it. The author concludes that the economic needs of the people are dependent upon the way they perceive their quality of life – that is to meet the basic requisites of living and at the same time allow for some surplus resources for safety and security measures.

Holtzer, H., Schanzenbach, D.W., Duncan, G., & Ludwig, J. (24 January 2007). “The Economic Costs of Poverty: Subsequent Effects of Children Growing Up Poor.” Center for American Progress. Accessed 26 January 2010 from

The study explored the direct relationship of poverty to the loss of individual and economic potentials among children as they grow up. The authors discussed the likelihood of the poor children to be involved in illicit activities, to be uneducated and to be deprived of the right to equal opportunity employment compared to the non-poor ones. To this end, the authors adhered that the government must undertake the necessary means to provide preventive anti-poverty measures in order to offset the projected social and economic costs due to the resulting intergenerational poverty. The authors concluded that it is the moral obligation of the state – as a country that believes on the equal opportunity for all to undertake the necessary steps to address poverty among children.

List of References

—- (27 July 2009). “Understanding Poverty in the U.S.: A Social Witness Toolkit. Friends Committee on National Legislation. Accessed 26 January 2010 from

—- (2009). “Poverty.” The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. Accessed 26 January 2010 from

—- (July 2004). “Poverty, The Distribution of Income and Public Policy.” Ed: A.J. Auerbach, D. Card, & J.M. Quigley. University of California, Berkeley. Accessed 26 January 2010 from

Eleurkeh, E. (26 March 2004). “Fighting Poverty in Ghana: The Past, Present and Future.” Paper presented at the World Bank Video Conference on Poverty Reduction. The Citizen-University of Ghana.

Frontline. (29 December 2005) “Why Poverty Persists in Appalachia: An Interview with Cynthia M. Duncan.” Country Boys Frontline. Accessed 26 January 2010 from

Geary, D. (2003). “Welfare System.” Dictionary of American History. The Gale Group Inc. Accessed 26 January 2010 from

Gorman, T. (2003). The Complete Idiots Guide to Economics. New York: Alpha Books

Holtzer, H., Schanzenbach, D.W., Duncan, G., & Ludwig, J. (24 January 2007). “The Economic Costs of Poverty: Subsequent Effects of Children Growing Up Poor.” Center for American Progress. Accessed 26 January 2010 from

Rector. R.E., & Johnson, K. A. (05 January 2004). “Understanding Poverty in America.” The Heritage Foundation. Accessed 26 January 2010 from

The Center for American Progress Task on Poverty. (25 April 2007). “From Poverty to Prosperity: A National Strategy to Cut Poverty in Half.” Center for American Progress. Accessed 26 January 2010 from

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