Focus: People in our Community
To develop an understanding of what it means to be poor in the United States – and to begin to make meaningful connections between the official poverty numbers and the real-life situations they represent.
Most people in the United States of America have what they need to live in comfort. Most people have enough food to eat, enough clothes to wear, and enough shelter to be safe. However, in the United States today, there are 43.1 million people living in poverty.
People are said to be “living in poverty” when they do not have enough of what it takes to fulfill basic human needs. A person can be poor when he or she lacks the essentials of daily life, such as a sufficient amount of food to keep them from being hungry. A person can be poor if he or she works hard at a job but doesn’t make enough money to buy the things needed to be healthy and secure, such as proper clothing to keep them warm in cold weather or health care to help them when they are sick.
Who is poor in the United States? This is how those living in poverty would answer. We are White. We are African-American. We are Hispanic and Native-American and Asian, too. We are young and we are old. We live in cities, suburbs and in the country. We go to work and go to school and go to church. We are concerned about raising our children well. We help others who are in worse shape than we are. We sometimes depend on the kindness of others. We are nearly one out of every five children in America. We are one out of every ten families in America. We aren’t all the same.
- Blue index cards
- Red index cards
- Four bowls
- Hard candies or mints
- Small paper cups
- Safety pins or masking tape
How many children in America today are living in poverty? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2012, an estimated 14.5 million children were living below the poverty line – 19.7 percent of all children, or one out of every five in the United States. To illustrate the number of children living in poverty, have your group count off by five. Individuals numbered 1 through 4 receive a blue card. Those numbered 5 receive a red card.
Prepare a table at the front of the room with four bowls of food, containing Cheerios, M&Ms, raisins and peanuts, and a stack of small paper cups. Individuals with a blue card are then invited to come to the food table, and are allowed to take a cup and fill it with cereal, candy, and raisins, all the way to the top, if they desire. Individuals with a red card are then invited to the food table but are told they may only choose the Cheerios – and may only fill their cups halfway. (You might ask your group members to pin or tape the card to their clothing so they can empathize with the notion that others know you are poor, like when children have to present their free lunch cards in the cafeteria, announcing their poverty to their peers.)
Once the distribution is made, the individuals with the blue cards are then advised that they may share any of their food with those holding a red card.
Have the group members write their reactions and reflections in a journal and then share their reactions with the class. How did it feel to be the one in five with the red card? How did it feel to stand at the table spread with food but be allowed to only choose one item – and a lesser amount than available to the others? For the blue card group, what was your initial reaction when told you could share your food with the others? For the red card group, how did it feel to have someone share with you?
Activity 2: “Who Lives in the State of American Poverty?”
What exactly does the face of poverty look like in America? For younger children, the “official” facts and figures issued by the federal government may have little impact in helping them grasp how the problem of poverty affects so many in the United States. As an initiating activity for early grade groups, open the activity by reading one of the suggested resources, such as Fly Away Home by Eve Bunting, which tells the personal stories of families living in poverty. Then, using the stories as a springboard for discussion, introduce the following questions, aimed at separating the facts from the myths about poverty in America.
Q. Who is poor in America today?
A. Poverty affects all types of people in the United States. Whites, African-Americans, Hispanics, Native-American and Asian-Americans are all affected by poverty.
Q. Do poor people only live in the city?
A. Poverty can be found in all kinds of communities in America. Poor people live in the suburbs and the country, as well as the city.
Q. Are poor people poor because they don’t work?
A. Many people who are living in poverty have jobs, but do not make enough money to pay for all the things they need for them or their family, such as food and clothing.
Q. Are homeless people and poor people the same?
A. Although many poor people are homeless, most poor people live in houses or apartments. But while they may have enough money to pay the rent, they have little left over to buy other necessities.
Activity 3: Student Action Project
Ideas and suggestions for educating about poverty and our Catholic response for grades K-8. Download PDF now (size 2 MB).
Ask your group to share the day’s activity with their families at home around the dinner table. Have them talk about who is poor in America today, the conditions that impact the lives of the poor, and the ways their own families can help those in poverty find a way out. Then have your members discuss their families’ solutions in the group setting. Compare and contrast the differing views – and use the conflicting perceptions as an opening to a wider discussion of how America views the problem of poverty.
Explain to the group that, right now, there are people in their community living in poverty, for whom hunger is a daily occurrence and whom they can help by organizing a food drive at their school. Have your group create posters or flyers that they can distribute, telling about the problem of poverty in their community and asking others to donate food items to aid the hungry in their community. Contact a poverty-relief organization in your community to distribute the goods, then celebrate and publicize your group’s good effort through the local media. Such drives that include families and involve community organizations help reinforce the notion that different groups can work together for the good of the whole.