Poverty Has Many Economic Causes, But Don’t Forget That Lack of Opportunity is a Key

by Mark Edwards   •  

Last week’s Washington Post tells a moving story about a family that has been hit hard by the Great Recession, and pushed from a hard-earned, secure life in the middle class to below the poverty line. The full story is well-worth a read, but here is the key point:

Walker used to make $100,000 a year as a nursing home executive until she lost her job a year and a half ago. Unable to find a new one, she shed her business suits and high heels and put on an apron and soft-soled shoes. This year, she and her daughter are living on $11,000: her unemployment benefits plus whatever she can earn selling home-cooked dinners for $10 apiece.

Her American Dream has taken a punch to the gut. “I never thought I’d be in a situation like this,” she says, smoke from the cooking swirling about her. “My friends say to me: ‘Listen to the Lord, Chris.’ I say, ‘No, I have to have a paycheck.’ “

The Census Bureau recently reported that the poverty rate in the United States rose to 14.3 percent last year, the highest level in more than 50 years.

Texas and Florida saw the most people fall below the line. In Florida alone, 323,000 people became newly poor last year, bringing the state’s poverty total to 2.7 million.

The numbers tell another tale as well: Nationwide, in black households such as Walker’s, income plunged an average of 4.4 percent in 2009, almost three times the drop among whites. The number of blacks living below the official poverty line – $21,756 for a family of four – increased by 7 percent in just one year.


This story is an important complement to the traditional view of low-income America that says that poverty comes to people who don’t want to work hard. It helps make clear that downward mobility in tough economic times can happen to any individual or family, and that economic security is one of the challenges that our nation will have to address to create greater prosperity and economic stability for American families.

At the same time, though, I couldn’t help thinking that isolated stories about individuals also have a way of isolating the problem – in this case focusing on the fallout from the Great Recession. Economic insecurity is a problem with many root causes. And forOpportunityNation to fully succeed we need to tell everyone’s stories, particularly the stories about people who have never had the opportunity to work hard and achieve their full potential. We also need to share the success stories that describe how an individual or family achieved their full potential, and what they relied on for support and strength along the way.

In addition, as tough as it is for the 14.3% of the American population that are below the poverty line right now, on average 32% of Americans spend at least 2 months below the poverty line every year. That’s 100 million Americans. It is only when our nation understands that the issues of opportunity aren’t isolated – but are in fact mainstream and touch every community- that we’ll begin to recognize that lack of opportunity isn’t an isolated problem, it’s an American problem.

Making that clear, and then building a movement behind innovative, nonpartisan strategies to increase opportunities for every American to work toward his or her full potential, is what OpportunityNation is all about.


Mark-Edwards-Bio-Photo Mark Edwards

Mark Edwards is the founder and co-chair of Opportunity Nation. Read Mark's bio.

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