The Multiple Experiences of Poverty in the U.S.

















“The fight against extreme poverty and social  exclusion involves many different actors who occupy different yet unequal positions in society.”  

-Joseph Wresinski, Founder of ATD Fourth World


What does it feel like to live in poverty? Who has the deepest understanding of poverty? Who can better define it? Researchers? Practitioners? Or people with a direct experience of poverty?

These were the questions addressed in an intimate and poignant event organized by ATD Fourth World and Equity for Children. “Pushed to the Bottom: The Experience of Poverty in the United States” gathered practitioners, academics, students and persons with a lived experience of poverty to share their perspectives about what constitutes poverty and how it is felt physically and emotionally. The event provided a profound discussion of poverty’s dimensions beyond material deprivations. It also gave voice to those living in poverty, including them in the public discussion.


The event served to launch ATD’s Multidimensional Aspects of Poverty (MAP) research, conducted between 2016 and 2019 in Appalachia (southwest Virginia), Boston, Gallup (New Mexico), New Orleans, New York City and Oakland (California). This merging of knowledge offers a new, enriched perspective about poverty in the U.S. ATD’s qualitative study distinguishes various aspects of poverty from a subjective perspective. People in poverty, academics and social workers collaborated to combine experience, action and academic research into a participatory methodology. Similarly to Equity for Children’s research since 2006, the MAP project challenges the notion that the physical, emotional and social stresses of poverty are reflected solely by someone’s position relative to the $1.90 dollar a day threshold that defines U.S. poverty.

Maryann Broxton, the coordinator of the MAP National Research Team, highlighted the merits of a multidimensional approach, stating that “Poverty is not just an abstract line”, but a concrete and complex human experience with difficulties that simple economic definitions of poverty cannot attest to. The basis of poverty is subjugation, she said. When a group of people is subjugated systematically, inequality begins to impact almost every aspect of their life and compounds the barriers to well-being that they face. Much of poverty is experienced as deprivation and inequality of access because subjugation creates a social context for treating people unequally.

Coming from a disadvantaged area plays a critical role in shaping an individual’s experience of poverty. Poor communities often receive heightened policing, which often leads to practices of racial profiling and the criminalization of the poor. This can put residents at higher personal safety risk or criminal justice system involvement. It also can stigmatize the community, which then can be internalized as shame. People living in disadvantaged areas often feel disconnected from the path to success or opportunity. A life surrounded by crumbling infrastructure and inadequate public services often leads to feelings of abandonment by the outside world. As researchers and advocates, we must focus on bringing more communities affected by poverty into the public debate to ensure they are not left behind and that their rights are defended.

Shame and stigma affect people from disadvantaged areas when they are pre-judged as untrustworthy, dangerous or otherwise unapproachable. This stigma leads to excluding impoverished communities’ perspectives during outreach by political and social stakeholders when they seek citizen participation. Exclusion contributes to the social isolation felt deeply by people in poverty. Someone in poverty may feel stigmatized because they have few material belongings, which U.S. cultural norms value highly. The stigma is even greater for those who depend on social assistance programs to meet basic survival needs. An atmosphere of shame surrounds social assistance programs, which harms their effectiveness at easing the burden of poverty in people’s lives.

Those living in poverty are likely to experience deprivations related to lack of access to resources such as nutrition, safe water and electricity for educational or domestic needs. Lack of resources impacts health outcomes. It also creates social stigma in perceptions about the lack of cleanliness. Poverty is often experienced through unequal access to health and well-being. A sick individual in poverty automatically faces financial barriers to treatment that people with greater resources do not. Also, health outcomes have deep connections to physical environments. People from disadvantaged areas are often disproportionately affected by health issues related to poor building practices or pollution from nearby facilities.

People in poverty often lack a forum for airing their voice and participation. Equity for Children’s Executive Director Alberto Minujin called for attendees to be the “new” generation of advocates seeking solutions with the guidance of people who know the physical, emotional and social experience of poverty. Equity for Children is committed to bringing the perspectives of children and adolescents into the discussion of their rights and needs, in order to determine how policy can improve their daily life.

Poverty often contributes to work- and employment-related hardships. There is a cultural narrative that education is the only escape route from the cycle of poverty. However, financial burdens of quality education act as barriers to access for families hoping to provide the opportunity for their children to escape the cycle. Precarious employment has risen, and people in poverty are more likely to have unpredictable work schedules and few or no social protections. This limits flexibility in several other areas of life, such as childcare complications, educational opportunity time constraints and transportation challenges. In these ways, income indicators fail to capture and shed light on, the inadequacy of policies based on simple economic measures. We must include voices that provide a fuller picture of poverty, in order to help generate inclusive and effective policies.



Equity for Children’s and ATD Fourth World’s event began to reshape the dialogue surrounding poverty. People in poverty face immense struggle, but they are vital, resilient contributors to the world and to the search for better solutions to social inequities. Equity for Children is honored to be a part of this initiative. We are committed to improving outcomes for children living in poverty through better statistical measurement and advocacy that leads to equitable treatment and equal access for all.

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