Share This

Poverty in the World's Wealthiest Country?

Despite the U.S. ranking as one of world’s wealthiest countries, the most recent national statistics paint a dismal picture.  Close to 40 million Americans live in poverty - and the child poverty rate rose from 5.2 percent in 2021 to 12.4 percent in 2022!   Why aren’t we talking about this more?

Aptly described as a “complex and insidious determinant to health”, poverty is caused by underlying systemic factors that can persist in individuals and their families for generations.  Beyond the implied financial limitations, social determinants such as the lack of access to basic essentials (clean water, adequate food, shelter, education, and health care) can have a profound impact on health and health outcomes.

When we get sick, we can’t work, so our income goes down.  On a population level, communities that experience more barriers to wellness also experience more poverty.  This is just one aspect of what we call the “cycle of poverty.”  Poorer neighborhoods generate fewer property taxes to support public education, which in turn, produces less prepared graduates for college or the workforce, and that means lower income.  And the cycle goes on and on…

Inequities (such as gender and/or ethnic discrimination, inequitable governance, exploitation, and domestic violence) are now recognized as significant drivers of poverty.  For example, a recent Washington Post analysis of Federal data revealed that close to 50 percent D.C.’s Black residents live in medically underserved areas.  In addition to being disproportionately affected by heart disease, diabetes, asthma and other chronic conditions for decades, this population bore the brunt of city’s deaths from COVID.  Washington, D.C., is by no means unique.  Similar conditions observed in cities and rural areas across the country have spurred a new emphasis on health equity.

What are we doing to counter poverty and its underlying causes?  On a national level, economic security programs like Social Security , food assistance, tax credits, and housing assistance continue to be instrumental in reducing poverty, and a National Academy of Sciences panel recently evaluated two initiatives that would likely cut in half both the child poverty rate and the gap in poverty rates between white children and Black and Latino children. National Poverty in America Awareness Month (observed in January) uses its platform to inform leaders and decision makers across all sectors, educate the public about this complex issue, and seek better ways to correct the underlying problems.

On a local level, we’ve seen a remarkable uptick in response to these issues. For instance:

  • The Upward Mobility Action Plan for Philadelphia (launched in 2022) was built on insights from the US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty. Recognizing the vital importance of removing social barriers to “belonging and autonomy”, its focus is on metrics like affordable housing, availability of good jobs, and quality of conditions in neighborhoods.
  • The Promise – Philadelphia Poverty Action Fund – is funded by the United Way and local governments. It focuses on identifying and helping individuals “secure, stabilize grow income”. The organization invests in community partnerships that tackle poverty by removing barriers to employment (e.g. expanding employment for individuals with past convictions) and connecting families to economic security programs and public benefits.

In the Jefferson College of Population Health, we strive to be part of the solution.  With a focus on social determinants and health equity, our advanced degree programs broaden our students’ understanding of poverty and promote initiatives in the community and nationally that lead to improved health status and access to care for marginalized groups.

Dr. Oglesby is the Humana Dean of the Jefferson College of Population Health.