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Poverty in America Affects Millions


The United States is a wealthy nation, but poverty still exists here. By the government's own measure, more than one in every eight Americans lives "below the poverty line" -- on income lower than the official estimate of what it means to be poor. VOA's Jeff Swicord takes a deeper look at the picture of poverty in America.

They are a common sight in inner-city America: homeless people, living in the streets and going hungry. To most Americans, this is the face of poverty.

Population experts and those who work at trying to help the poor say the problem extends far beyond those who are homeless, and is often less visible to the general public.

Robert Egger is director of "DC Central Kitchen," which prepares free meals for the hungry in Washington. He says, "If you ask the average American who is hungry, they are thinking it is a homeless person. And they think that that homeless person is hungry because they are an addict or a drunk. … 'It is their fault. They are lazy.' People need to realize that the face of hunger is a single woman, raising two kids, who has a job. At the end of the month, she is going to come up short (of funds) because she is only making $8, $9, $10 [or] $12 an hour. In most American cities, she is not going to make it."

The U.S. Census Bureau calculates that 37 million Americans are living in poverty -- on an income of less than $20,000 a year for a family of four, for example. The number of people living in poverty here has grown by more than five million since 2000, but overall the official measure of poverty has not changed significantly – 12.7 percent of the population (according to the latest figures available, for 2005).

Catholic Charities U.S.A., one of this country's largest faith-based organizations, is trying to drastically reduce poverty in America. The Reverend Larry Snyder is Catholic Charities' president. "We are calling upon policymakers, faith-based groups [and] civic leaders to make a systematic effort to cut poverty in this country in half by the year 2020. We can only do that if we make the poor a priority in policy decisions, from city hall and the courthouse, to Congress and the White House."

The charity's "Campaign to Reduce Poverty" will try to influence Congress and the White House to keep four priorities high in their future legislative plans: health care, hunger, housing and nutrition, and family economic security. As Congress looks for ways to cut the federal government's spending, advocates for the poor say, there should be no reduction in the government's support for programs that combat poverty.

At Washington's Central Union Mission, a shelter for the homeless, special projects manager Julia Smith says housing costs in the nation's capital have tripled over the last five years -- creating wealth for a few, but forcing many people below the poverty line. "Generally, what you are seeing is the poor being pushed out of the city. And so you have the working poor that are holding jobs, but can no longer afford to live in the city."

Ms. Smith says drug use and other forms of substance abuse is another big factor in poverty. Ronny Thomas suffered from drug addiction for years, but with the Central Mission's help, he is now drug-free and looking for a good-paying job. "I started using drugs and my life just went haywire. [I] couldn't manage bills, [and] family -- and just lost everything."

There is no simple solution to ending poverty in America, but Catholic Charities U.S.A. says that task is a moral obligation for everyone. The resources and knowledge about how to end poverty are available, Catholic Charities says, but what is too often lacking is political leaders' willingness to take action.

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