Facts about poverty in America, by Ryan Abernathy [Guest Post]

Few things enflame the passions of taxpayers like the abuse of government assistance. Everyone has seen somebody buying steak and lobster with a SNAP card while their kid’s diaper overflows onto the grocery store floor.

Or they know someone who has.

Political campaigns contain promises of welfare reform and cleaning up the system. “We need to make sure taxpayer money isn’t going to waste,” because, heaven knows, it would be an abomination to feed kids who never asked to be born, whose mothers we would have castigated had they chosen abortion rather than life.

We sure like to have it both ways.

But what if it turns out that exaggerated image doesn’t even represent the majority? Perhaps there is a larger group on government assistance, a group typically respected.

Ryan Abernathy is a friend who, to my memory, I have never met in person. He is one of the blessings of social media. Ryan is a pastor in Oklahoma, and works with a regional food bank (see full bio below). Because of that affiliation he is more than qualified to speak to government assistance and poverty. Below is part 1. Part 2 will post tomorrow.

“Whoever mocks the poor insults his Maker; he who is glad at calamity will not go unpunished.” Proverbs 17:5 (ESV)


When we think about poverty in America most of us have one of two visions- the homeless person on the side of the road with the sign looking for a handout, or the person who is gaming the system, laying around all day eating steak and lobster bought on food stamps while everyone else works for a living. What if I told you that neither of these caricatures is a picture of the reality of poverty in America? What if, instead, the picture was a lot more complicated and bleaker than you ever imagined?


The truth is, the poor in America generally fall into one of three categories- children, senior adults, or the working poor.


Today, I want to focus on seniors. In part 2, we will look more closely at the working poor and the children affected by their plight. I start with seniors because they are the most likely to be overlooked when politicians and pundits denounce the recipients of government assistance (commonly called SNAP, but also including TANF, WIC, and CSFP- the government will acronym you to death).


Do you know how many people on our government assistance rolls are kids and seniors? It’s an important question, and here’s the startling answer:




That’s right, over half. When you factor in the number of disabled people on SNAP, that number grows to over 60%.[2] Stop and think about that for a second. That means SNAP serves about 10.2 million children in a given month and almost 4 million seniors.[3] These are sons and daughters and our grandparents and great-grandparents. If they are not ours, they are someones.


What does one have to be making to qualify for SNAP? Another great question. Ready for the answer?


$973- net monthly income


That’s for a single person.


Do you want to live on that trying to eat, paying rent, utilities, insurance, and the rest of the expenses of life? Me neither.


But the benefits must be great, right? I mean, surely, the SNAP payout is enough to make up the difference? Sure. The average SNAP payment to a senior adult is $113 a month. So that ups the monthly living income for a senior in poverty to $1086, barely over $13,000 per year.


What are the circumstances that would cause a senior adult to fall into the poverty gap? This is an area near and dear to my heart. I have worked with seniors in poverty for the last four years and the stories I often hear are heartbreaking. According to a study released by AARP in 2010,[4] seniors tend to fall into poverty due to one of three issues:


  1. Rising housing costs
  2. Rising energy bills
  3. Rising health care costs

Factor in a longer life span, seniors outliving their retirement, the recent recession and many taking early retirement to avoid losing their jobs, and you have a growing population with no financial recourse to combat rising costs to just live, much less live well.


In their Golden Years these folks woke from an American Dream to find it could no longer be pursued.


So what does this mean for senior adults? It means they must prioritize their incomes in ways that most Americans would never consider. For example, many seniors eat less, cut back on medications, don’t take medications as prescribed, or try to limit usage of heat or air conditioning in order to have enough money to get by. “Eat less” does not mean less than they can; it means less than they should.


These choices lead to higher rates of malnutrition, key nutrient deficiencies,[5] and higher rates of illness, heart attack,[6] and earlier onset dementia.[7]


Stop and think about this — these are our grandparents. These are the members of The Greatest Generation. Many fought in World War 2. They built the infrastructure of our country. When we talk about the poor in demeaning ways, we are talking about them. And they know it. That’s why senior adults are generally the last ones to ask for help; the last ones to apply for assistance. They are the last ones to be noticed as they waste away. They don’t want to be known as people in need.


We can’t discuss poverty in America without looking very hard in the mirror and asking ourselves, “What do I really know about the poor, beyond the latest soundbite?” When we begin to look at the real people involved, the facts destroy the soundbites. These silent, suffering seniors are the first ones to feel the bite of public assistance cutbacks, because every dollar they lose is magnified by the rise of the cost of living.


What is the cost to us as the Church and as a nation when we deny them in their time of need?


“Do not rob the poor, because he is poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate, for the Lord will plead their cause and rob of life those who rob them.” Proverbs 22:22-23 (ESV)



[1] http://assets.aarp.org/rgcenter/ppi/econ-sec/2010-03-poverty.pdf

[2] http://www.feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/our-research/senior-hunger-research/or-spotlight-on-senior-health-executive-summary.pdf

[3] Ibid

[4] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2682454/

[5] http://www.fns.usda.gov/sites/default/files/ops/Characteristics2013-Summary.pdf

[6] Ibid

[7] http://www.fns.usda.gov/sites/default/files/ops/Characteristics2013.pdf

Ryan Abernathy is the Teaching Pastor at West Metro Community Church in Yukon, OK (www.westmetro.org) and the Senior Director of Programs and Nutrition for the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma (www.regionalfoodbank.org). Follow him on twitter @absonjourney.

Read part 2 of Facts about poverty in America.

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Featured image credit

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

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