Many Americans Don’t Recognize Poverty

Americans don’t quite have an accurate picture of what poverty in the United States looks like, at least according to a new survey.

Released today, “Perceptions of Poverty: The Salvation Army’s Report to America” surveyed more than 1,000 Americans online in February. The survey had a margin of error of +/- 3.1 percent.

The perception by Americans of how much annual income makes a family “poor” is roughly 25 percent less than the actual federal poverty level. On average, Americans believe the annual income that makes a family “poor” is approximately $18,472 – almost $4,600 less than the federal poverty level for a family of four, which is $23,050.

Overall, Americans believe that 34 percent of the population is living in poverty. The level varies with income, with the belief that 40 percent of those earning less than $25,000 annually, compared to 37 percent among those earning $25,000 to $50,000 and about 27 percent among those earning more than $50,000. In reality, about 16 percent of Americans are living in poverty, or roughly 49 million people, according to The Salvation Army.

About two of every five Americans reported having received assistance from a charitable group, including food from food banks or financial assistance/housing support. Individuals who currently have lower household incomes are much more likely to have needed assistance, with 63 percent of Americans earning less than $25,000 having received assistance. Among Americans ages 35-54, nearly half said they received assistance at some point in their lifetime.

About one in eight Americans reported having spent a night in a shelter or on the street due to a loss of housing. Those who currently have lower household incomes are much more likely to have experienced a lack of shelter: About a quarter of Americans who earn less than $25,000 annually reported sleeping in a shelter or on the street. The number dropped to 6 percent among those earning at least $50,000 annually.

About 59 percent of Americans reported donating to charity last year and the prevalence of donating to charity increases with income: 70 percent of those who earn more than $50,000 a year reported donating. Even 46 percent of those earning less than $25,000 reported donating to charity.

Of those making contributions, a quarter of said they gave less than $50 and another quarter reported giving more than $500. About one in five said they gave anywhere from $300 to $500.

The vast majority of Americans across all age groups – almost nine out of 10 surveyed – believe people in poverty deserve help.

Almost half agreed that “a good work ethic is all you need to escape poverty,” while 47 percent believe if poor people received more assistance, they would take advantage of it.

Others were less forgiving. About 43 percent agreed that if poor people want a job, they could always find a job, while 27 percent said people are poor because they are lazy and 29 percent said they usually have lower moral values.

Almost three out of five people surveyed said poverty is a trap some people just can’t escape no matter how hard they try while more than half believes it’s not possible to eliminate poverty in our society. About a third said there is “really nothing much I can do to help poor people.”