In the United States, the annual expenditure on poverty is more than $550 billion and likely in excess of $900 billion. The true cost of poverty is not known because so much of it is hidden in the fabric of an unequal economic system. Who can calculate poverty’s contribution to expenditures on crime, prisons, courts or emergency room use for routine care? Who knows the total cost of unemployment insurance, food pantries, or degradation of housing stock by slum landlords? How about the extent of charitable contributions and street donations to alleviate poverty?

The irony is that if $900 billion were paid in cash to 47 million poor people every year, poverty would end. Ludicrous, yes, but it makes a point starkly.

Despite the enormity of spending on it, poverty continues to grow, year after year, decade after decade. In 2014, there were 46,500,000 people in the U.S. living below the poverty line — men, women and children. In December, 2015, there were 59,068 homeless people living in New York City alone — on grates, in hallways, in parks and in shelters.

Poverty is “cruel and unusual punishment” and undeserved by the vast majority of those trapped in its grip. Seventy-three percent of people living below the poverty level have, at least, one member of the family in full-time or part-time work. Their wages are too low in those jobs for them to survive without help.

Beyond the financial cost to the entire society, there are social, psychological, cultural and intellectual consequences directly related to poverty.

There are many ways in which institutional poverty handicaps the poor in their struggle to live. Intelligence is one clear example of how that works. During the past 10-15 years, research has given proof to the thesis that heredity alone doesn’t determine brain functioning. It confirmed that heredity and environment are indivisible and that single process controls brain development. It is clear, then, that life as lived changes how hereditary intelligence is transformed into functioning intelligence.


Where stress, malnutrition, terror and insecurity prevail, intelligent thought and abstract thinking ability is reduced. The ability to learn is reduced. Inadequate or absent schooling denies affected children the possibility of recovery of capacity. War and poverty create conditions that damage effective development of abstract thought processes. Violence in the home and on the streets has the same result.

Every aspect of a child’s ability to negotiate life to its fullest is endangered or enhanced by the heredity and environment unitary process.

Poverty is so much more than a problem for the poor. The expenditures to alleviate suffering and the many intrusions of poverty into every level of society make this an urgent national challenge. The complexity of the problem of poverty is one of the significant reasons it has never been solved.

Imagine a society without poverty.

Hubert Kauffman is a clinical psychologist who writes about political issues. He lives in Oxford.

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