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Beyond Finances: Poverty and Homelessness in America

$30,000 is enough money to pay rent for the median Boston apartment for less than a year. It’s also the set poverty line for a family of 4 in the United States. 

A net worth of less than $29,960 qualifies as “impoverished” for a family of four. In other words, someone experiencing poverty earns less than this annually–which the US Census Bureau estimates to be a livable wage. Certainly, the term impoverished carries its own weight and stigma. More often than not, however, people claiming social security benefits and food stamps are doing so out of necessity. Many of these people even work full-time jobs, yet their annual salary is insufficient to keep them from poverty. 

Poverty and homelessness have a deeply intertwined history, at the crux of which scholars and everyday people alike find deep-rooted discrimination. Systemic poverty and homelessness create cycles of financial insecurity that operate within families, communities, and neighborhoods. Those experiencing explicit poverty and homelessness are often granted access to social services, which, at best, limit the burden of financial insecurity on those experiencing it. Rarely do these services address the root causes of poverty and provide pathways to its end, which ensures that those in poverty remain in poverty. 

Background: Poverty in the United States

Like homelessness, poverty trends with race, disability, and other historically marginalized groups. Of Black youth in America, over 20 percent experience poverty. Poverty is driven by the same factors as broader inequalities; legacies of segregation and current forms of racial discrimination inhibit access to resources necessary to the building of wealth.  

In many cities across America, there exist many high-poverty, low-income neighborhoods, most of which are inhabited primarily by Black, Latino, and Native people. Indeed, in 2020, 14 percent of people of color resided in high-poverty neighborhoods, while only 3.9 percent of White people lived in these neighborhoods. These neighborhoods are often found in historically segregated and redlined communities as well as in expropriated native lands, where financial conditions were designed explicitly to limit property values and ownership. Even today, zoning policies and implicit biases in mortgage lending maintain barriers to home ownership. The proliferation of these communities and their exclusion from economic prosperity enable White communities to accumulate wealth and resources and limit access to these resources.

The geography of poverty further enhances its cyclical nature. Low-income neighborhoods often become low-opportunity neighborhoods, where schools are few, transportation options are limited, and educational opportunities are inadequate compared to surrounding neighborhoods. These neighborhoods form environments in which the building of wealth is difficult. Without access to quality education, people have difficulty earning credentials valued in the workforce. Earning admission to four-year colleges becomes more challenging, and without access to nearby employment, affording those opportunities becomes infeasible. Moreover, those who are able to access these educational opportunities are often drawn away from these communities. In instances wherein improvements in local resources are made, wealthier renters seeking access to the central city will begin to purchase local properties, increasing home values and pushing community members away from their homes. 

Research also suggests these neighborhoods are more susceptible to broader issues, including climate change and communicable diseases. Many of these pockets were highly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, for example.

Poverty and Homelessness: Where they intersect

Both poverty and homelessness describe the state of being unable to pay for or access central human needs. In its broad definition, poverty describes the state of not having enough–whether it be money, opportunity, or resources. Someone experiencing poverty is at a much higher risk of experiencing homelessness, and someone experiencing homelessness is likely to remain in the cycle of poverty described above. People experiencing homelessness and people experiencing poverty face the same instances of discrimination and limited opportunity that result in generational fights against financial insecurity.

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