American Dream, American Nightmare: Poverty Today

Leslie G. Woods

The anxiety and suffering it causes is likely to intensify in this era of fiscal hysteria, economic doldrums, and budget cuts.

Poverty overwhelms nearly 44 million Americans today.1 Most of them are women and children: six out of ten poor adults in the U.S. are women, and one in five people living in poverty is under the age of 18.2 One in three single women with dependents lives in poverty, compared to one in six men.3 Women earn only 80 cents to every dollar earned by their male counterparts.4

It is hard for the rest of us – me included – to conceive of the pain and anxiety a woman feels when she cannot afford to fill a prescription for a sick child. It is difficult for me to grasp how a woman chooses between paying the rent and putting food on the table. It is hard for me to imagine relying only on an emergency room for medical care. It is impossible to envision leaving my son in an unstable child-care situation so that I can work a minimum wage job (or two or three) that fails to cover my family’s expenses anyway. It is alarming to learn that, at the bottom of the income scale, a poor woman pays more for just about everything – food, transportation, financial services, credit – than I, who have access to big grocery stores and fancy banks.

Poor women face colossal odds and painful choices as they work to try to make a decent life for their families. This is the face and the fact of poverty. So why are so many Americans trapped in a cycle of poverty? Whose responsibility is it to confront this issue? And how do we do so faithfully?

Vicious Cycles

I believe the poverty cycle begins and ends with wages – income inequality and the wage gap. Solv- ing these two fundamental injustices will have a significant impact in reducing poverty in the U.S.

Income inequality refers to the gap between the top and the bottom of the income scale. According to the Economic Policy Institute’s “The State of Working America,” income growth from 1947-1973 was about the same at all levels of the income scale. The poorest 20 percent of families enjoyed economic gains at about the same rate as the top 20 percent.5 But since 1979, the rate of increase for the bottom 90 percent has slowed; the bottom 20 percent has suffered outright stagnation and loss. By contrast, the top ten percent’s dramatic rate of increase has handed them a disproportionately large share of the overall growth of the economy. In the period from 1979-2005, the share of economic gains for the top ten percent of income earners has grown to 63.6 percent. The top one percent alone claims a whopping 38.7 percent of all economic gains during that period.6 Today, nearly half of this nation’s wealth is owned by those in the top one percent of the income scale.7

The second injustice is the wage gap between women and men. The latest statistics show that, on average, women earn about 80 cents for every dollar earned by their male colleagues.8 When the Equal Pay Act was first enacted in 1963, a woman who worked full-time earned, on average, 59 cents for every dollar earned by a man. Over the decades, the gap has narrowed, but slowly.9 Economist Evelyn Murphy, president of The Wage Project, estimates that over a lifetime (47 years of full-time work) this gap amounts to a loss in wages of $700,000 for a female high school graduate, $1.2 million for a female college graduate, and $2 million for a professional school graduate. Predictably, this wage gap is felt most keenly at the bottom, where retail, child care, and domestic workers, who are primarily women, are disproportionately underpaid and rarely receive benefits.

Capitol Hill Battles

One recent legislative effort to provide protection from the persistent wage gap has been successful: the 111th Congress passed, and the President signed, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act to strengthen female workers’ rights to challenge pay discrimination.

But other bills have stalled. The Senate failed to end debate on the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill that amends and improves the Equal Pay Act of 1963 by strengthening anti-discrimination laws, protecting workers who inquire into colleagues’ salaries, and strengthening penalties for equal-pay violations. Nor has Congress passed the Healthy Families Act, which would create a minimum labor standard allowing workers to earn up to seven days annually of paid, job-protected sick leave for illness or to care for a sick family member. Though not likely to move in the current Congress, such legislation would make important strides for the rights and benefits of low-wage workers, and especially of women in the workforce.

Ripping the Safety Net

While we wait for elected leaders to enact remedies, these injustices in our wage system are only exacerbated by the recession and sluggish recovery. But they existed before this economic crisis and will endure beyond this recovery. We therefore must ad- dress them in order to address poverty in the U.S., no matter what the economic climate. Poor people cannot afford basic necessities because they do not, and many cannot, earn enough to meet their basic needs. Promoters of the self-made American Dream would have us believe that any child born in this country has an equal chance at wealth and success, but the reality is different: we have structured our economy so that, despite rare exceptions, upward mobility is now virtually impossible to achieve for the average person.

Despite the national love affair with rugged individualism, those who are born into poverty are less likely to finish high school and more likely to live in poverty as adults than their young peers raised in affluence.10 The welfare state no longer exists. We have cut away many work supports for low-wage workers and are threatening more; the working poor is a real class of people who are struggling to tread water, and were doing so even before the Great Recession. These failures are a direct result of the heedless, intensified individualism of our time and the elevation of love of self above love of neighbor.

Smaller World, Bigger Responsibility

So, what is our responsibility? I challenge the rhetoric saturating our national debate that argues for spending cuts as the only way to get our fiscal house in order. Our society cannot afford the cuts proposed in Congress, both for the remainder of this fiscal year or for the next. Such draconian measures will only result in more disparity, more desperation, more poverty. We are called by Jesus to love our neighbor, which means caring about what happens in our society and in the world. The individualistic trend of hording money and possessions will only lead to more brokenness in a shrinking world that is increasingly interconnected. It is our collective responsibility – and it is in our own economic and spiritual self-interest – to ensure that everyone else is doing well. A commitment to the common good is not only our Biblical calling, but also a pragmatic approach toward the just and safe ordering of society.

In his “Remaining Awake through the Great Revolution” address delivered at Morehouse College in 1959, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. perfectly captured this theological and practical truth: “In the final analysis all life is interrelated. No nation or individual is independent; we are interdependent. We are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality. As long as there is poverty in the world I can never be rich, even if I possess a billion dollars. … Strangely enough, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.”11

Our federal spending choices as a nation reflect collective priorities. Cuts that target the poor are the last place we should turn for savings in the federal budget. Instead, we should seek a measured approach to deficit reduction that balances cutting wasteful spending with a just tax policy that ensures enough federal revenue to meet obligations to the most vulnerable at home and around the world. 

Some will argue that poverty alleviation is the role of the church and not of the government, but it is beyond our means or ability to solve the persistent crisis of poverty on our own. The charity and justice ministries of the church require public partnership and investment; the church cannot eradicate poverty alone.

Until every job in this country, whether held by a woman or a man, pays a true living wage, with access to paid sick leave, health coverage, and enough money to meet the basic needs of families, we must continue public and private investments in those programs that help people fill the gap between what they earn and what they need.

As I write this, I am heartsick that we live in such a broken world. But I believe that change is possible and that we are called to bring it about ourselves, with God’s help. It is my prayer that, rather than merely creating for ourselves a useful vocabulary for speaking about U.S. poverty, we will work to eradicate poverty itself, so that there will no longer be a need for such language. It is my prayer that the current debate about fiscal discipline will lead to a federal budget that reflects a respect for all people, puts our treasure where our hearts are, and ensures that those who can afford to contribute more to the common good do so. Most especially, it is my prayer that no woman in my child’s generation will ever have to choose between providing a roof and feeding her family. 

Leslie G. Woods ’05 M.A.R. serves as the Representative for Domestic Poverty & Environmental Issues at the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness in Washington, DC.


1 “Income, Poverty, and Health Coverage in the United States: 2009,” U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Department of Commerce, September 2010.

2 “Poverty and Income Support,” National Women’s Law Center,, accessed Feb. 28, 2011.

3 “Income, Poverty, and Health Coverage in the United States: 2009,” U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Department of Commerce, September 2010.

4 “Highlights of Women’s Earnings in 2009,” Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, June 2010.

5 “The State of Working America,” Economic Policy Institute, features/view/1, accessed on Feb. 28, 2011.

6 “The State of Working America.”

7 Michael I. Norton, Harvard Business School, and Dan Ariely, Duke University, “Building a Better America, One Wealth Quintile at a Time,” forthcoming in Perspectives on Psychological Science,, accessed March 1, 2011.

8 “Highlights of Women’s Earnings in 2009,” Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, June 2010.

9 The National Committee on Pay Equity, http://www., accessed Feb. 28, 2011.

10 “Recession Generation: Preventing Long-term Damage from Child Poverty and Young Adult Joblessness,” Coalition on Human Needs, July 2010, available at RecessionGeneration.pdf, accessed Feb. 28, 2011.

11 King, Martin Luther, Jr., address at Morehouse College commencement, Atlanta, Ga., June 2, 1959; cited in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr, Volume V; accessed online at index.php/kingpapers/article/vol5contents

SIDEBAR: Closing the Gender Gap One Nation at a Time

   Iceland is the world’s top-ranking nation for providing opportunities to women and closing the gender gap, according to the annual Global Gender Gap Report.

   Produced by the World economic forum, the re- port indexes 134 countries by measures of economic opportunity, health, education attainment, and political empowerment. on that basis, the U.S. ranks 19th, breaking into the top 20 for the first time. the u.S.’s improved performance is based partly on a strong record of education equality and economic opportunity. but it falters for a lack of female representation in congress and state government.

   Other high rankers include Ireland (6), Spain (11) and the united Kingdom (15). Luxemburg and Greece made the biggest strides, increasing their rankings because of gains in women’s political and economic participation.

   At the bottom were Pakistan (132), Chad (133), and Yemen (134). The numbers for the mideast are in some ways skewed, officials said, because even though women might enroll in universities there at the same rate as men, they are often prevented from joining the work force. Though Iceland and the Scandinavian nations lead the world in narrowing gender inequities, no nation has yet eliminated the gender gap completely.

   “Women and girls must be treated equally if a country is to grow and prosper,” says Klaus Schwab, chair of the World economic forum.

   “We still need a true gender equality revolution, not only to mobilize a major pool of talent both in terms of volume and quality, but also to create a more com- passionate value system within all our institutions.”