Despite the debate over measuring it, the pain of poverty is real
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Poverty experts have long debated how best to quantify poverty in the United States. Traditional U.S. Census measures rely on income. Others argue that a truer picture of the number of Americans experiencing poverty emerges when income is combined with government and social service benefits. The Salvation Army’s Human Needs Index, for instance, offers an on-the-ground portrayal of need based on the Army’s near real-time service statistics around housing, food insecurity, energy assistance and more.

Knowing the number of people living in poverty has major implications for policymakers and nonprofit providers alike, but centering the discussion on numbers diverts from focusing on the realities faced by many of our fellow Americans every day. The truth is that despite a robust economic picture, many people are struggling. And there are signs that, in some instances, things are getting worse, especially for the working poor.

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According to a recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report, the average hourly paychecks of four out of five American workers actually fell when adjusted for rising inflation. This was particularly true for those in manufacturing and construction jobs, or nonsupervisory roles in service industries like health care and fast food. These are the kinds of jobs typically filled by people already living near or below the poverty line.

And while unemployment is hitting record lows, homelessness is not. Housing costs are increasingly out of reach for many Americans, sending many who had places to live just a year ago into the streets. It is estimated that on any given night, more than 550,000 people are homeless. Forty percent of those are families with children or youths.

Even people with homes are often forced to choose between one basic necessity over another. More than 40 million Americans live in food-insecure households, and that includes almost 13 million children.

Policy discussions about adding work requirements to government benefits like Medicaid and SNAP often paint a picture, intentionally or not, that is far from the truth. In my experience, people struggling with poverty are not selfish or lazy, as stereotypes can suggest. Some of the hardest-working people I’ve ever met are beneficiaries of these programs. They know how to work, and they want to work.

But they also face real barriers. Many must string together several part-time jobs. The ability to consistently log the hours required to qualify for government benefits can be beyond their control. We must encourage businesses to treat these employees fairly by assigning flexible schedules and, in some cases, more hours.

In short, too much emphasis on requirements that don’t reflect or accommodate for the realities of poverty will result in more individuals without government resources, but with the same level of need. Social service providers like The Salvation Army will have to pick up the slack.

Let’s be honest. When the economy is struggling, the poor are the first to feel it. But then when the economy starts to recover, the poor are the last to feel it. As we continue to debate how to best lend a hand to the millions of Americans who have yet to enjoy the fruits of our improving economy, government and social service providers need to work together.

We need to maintain a safety net while offering programs that will help individuals and families become a thriving part of that growing economy. Vigorous case management programs like The Salvation Army’s Pathway of Hope help families and individuals move into more stable situations. Our workforce development programs teach new trades and skills.

And we must allow real people – their lives, their struggles, their triumphs – to become part of the narrative. If we can get back to focusing on people, they just might have a chance at becoming who they want and need to be.

David Hudson is National Commander of The Salvation Army.