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Poverty & Homelessness in the United States

Poverty & Homelessness in the United States

In the land of opportunity, the contrasting realities of wealth and poverty present an unresolved paradox. America, with its staggering economic might, is still marred by the twin issues of poverty and homelessness, an often neglected narrative that paints a stark picture of the country’s socio-economic fabric.

Amidst dazzling wealth and economic prowess, the shadows of poverty and homelessness stretch across the country, an overlooked testament to persistent social inequality. The narrative of “Poverty and Homelessness in America: Statistics, Resources” plunges into this dichotomy, shedding light on an often disregarded segment of the population.

Poverty & Homelessness in the United States: Key Statistics & Facts

The landscape of poverty and homelessness in the United States is defined by stark statistics that underscore the scale and complexity of these issues:


  • The top 3 causes of family homelessness include a lack of affordable housing, unemployment, and the omnipresent specter of poverty.
  • Annually, 2.5 million children, or 1 in 30 experience homelessness in America, with 1 in 19 children experiencing homelessness before even reaching the first grade.
  • In 2020, around 172,000 people in families with children were homeless.
  • During the 2018-2019 school year, more than 1.3 million students encountered homelessness.
  • Nearly 6% of children under age six, approximately 1.3 million, were homeless in 2018-2019.
  • More than half of homeless children are under age 6, and thus not of school age, hence not counted in official figures.
  • Students experiencing homelessness are 87% more likely to drop out of school compared to their housed counterparts.
  • Families with children constitute 30% of the nation’s homeless population, often living out of sight in shelters, cars, campgrounds, or overcrowded apartments.
  • In the U.S., 37.2 million people live below the poverty line.
  • Close to 11 million children in the U.S. live in poverty, with 16.1% of people under age 18 living in poverty in 2020.
  • The official poverty line for a family of four with two children is $26,200 per year.
  • The federal minimum wage has remained stagnant at $7.25/hour since 2009.
  • A 2-bedroom rental in the U.S. requires a renter to earn $24.90/hour, which is significantly above the federal minimum wage.
  • In 218 counties out of over 3,000 nationwide, a worker earning the federal minimum wage can afford a Fair Market Rent one-bedroom apartment. There is no state, metropolitan area, or county in the U.S. where a worker earning the federal, state, or local minimum wage can afford a modest two-bedroom rental home at fair market rent.
  • Despite median renter income rising only 5% (when adjusted for inflation) between 1960 to 2016, the median rent in the U.S. soared by 61%.
  • More than 10.4 million households spend over 50% of their income on rent and utilities, with 72.5% of these severely cost-burdened households being extremely low-income renters.
  • A staggering 75% of those eligible for federal housing assistance do not receive help due to lack of funding.
  • The U.S. currently faces a shortage of 6.8 million rental homes affordable and available to extremely low-income renters, with only 37 affordable rentals available for every 100 extremely low-income households.
  • In 2020, 10.5% of households were food-insecure, with 6.1 million children living in food-insecure households where both children and adults lacked consistent access to sufficient food for an active, healthy life.

By Gender:

  • Men are more likely to experience homelessness as individuals, but families with children, typically headed by single women, make up a significant portion of the homeless population.
  • Women are particularly vulnerable to certain forms of homelessness, such as “hidden homelessness” or staying in abusive situations due to a lack of housing options.
  • The poverty rate for women is slightly higher than for men, and single mothers are particularly likely to live in poverty.

By Ethnicity/Race:

  • People of color are disproportionately represented among individuals experiencing homelessness. In particular, African Americans, who constitute around 13% of the general population, represent more than 40% of the homeless population.
  • Native Americans also face high rates of homelessness compared to their share of the population.
  • Hispanic individuals represent a slightly larger share of the homeless population compared to their percentage of the total U.S. population.
  • Similar to homelessness, poverty also disproportionately affects people of color. The poverty rate for Black and Hispanic individuals is significantly higher than for non-Hispanic white individuals.

By Age:

  • Youth aged 18-24 are at higher risk for homelessness, especially those who age out of foster care, identify as LGBTQ+, or are pregnant or parenting.
  • Older adults (over 50) are a growing segment of the homeless population, often facing unique health challenges associated with aging.
  • Children are more likely to live in poverty than adults. In 2019, the poverty rate was 14.4% for individuals under 18, compared to 9.4% for adults aged 18-64.

By State:

  • Homelessness is a nationwide issue, but the problem is particularly acute in some states. California, New York, and Florida have some of the highest numbers of individuals experiencing homelessness.
  • States with high housing costs, such as California and New York, also have higher rates of homelessness.
  • Some states have more significant challenges with “unsheltered” homelessness (people living on the streets, in cars, or in other places not meant for human habitation), including California, Oregon, and Nevada.
  • Poverty rates also vary by state, with some of the highest rates in southern states like Mississippi, Louisiana, and New Mexico.

homelessness in the US

Factors Contributing to Poverty

The perpetuation of poverty in the United States is a complex issue, deeply rooted in a multitude of contributing factors:

  • Income Inequality: The widening gap between the wealthy and the poor, especially with stagnating wages for lower-income workers, exacerbates poverty.
  • Unemployment: Joblessness, underemployment, or inconsistent employment significantly contribute to poverty, with people unable to earn a living wage being more likely to fall into poverty.
  • Education: Lower levels of education are often linked to higher poverty rates due to reduced access to well-paying jobs and limited economic opportunities.
  • Healthcare Costs: High healthcare costs can drain resources, especially for those without insurance, leading to medical debt and potentially pushing families into poverty.
  • Affordable Housing Crisis: The rising costs of housing and the lack of affordable housing options can force families to allocate a disproportionate amount of their income towards rent, leading to housing insecurity and potential homelessness.
  • Limited Social Safety Nets: Insufficient funding and limited access to social services can make it difficult for individuals and families to escape poverty.
  • Intergenerational Poverty: Children born into poverty are more likely to remain in poverty as adults due to limited resources, creating a cycle that can be difficult to break.
  • Systemic Discrimination: Racial, ethnic, gender-based, and other forms of discrimination can limit access to education, jobs, housing, and other opportunities, contributing to higher rates of poverty among marginalized groups.
  • Economic Recession: Economic downturns can lead to job losses, wage reductions, and increased poverty levels.
  • Cost of Living: In areas with high costs of living, even individuals and families with income above the poverty line can struggle to afford basic necessities like food, housing, healthcare, and transportation.
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Issues: These problems can lead to job loss, reduced productivity, and increased healthcare costs, which can contribute to poverty.

Underlying Causes of Homelessness

The struggle of homelessness is not simply a singular problem but rather a web of interconnected issues each contributing to the overarching dilemma. From economic conditions and housing affordability to health issues and social circumstances, a multitude of factors plays into the escalation of homelessness.

In understanding the problem holistically, it becomes apparent that addressing homelessness requires comprehensive solutions aimed at its diverse root causes. Let’s delve into each of these core issues to gain a deeper understanding.

Housing Affordability and Availability

A primary contributor to homelessness is the rising cost of housing coupled with a distinct lack of affordable options. The gap between wages and rent continues to widen, placing a disproportionate financial burden on low-income households.

With the federal minimum wage remaining stagnant since 2009 while housing costs have seen significant increases, securing stable, affordable housing has become an escalating challenge.

Moreover, the severe shortage of affordable housing units and limited federal housing assistance exacerbate this problem, particularly for extremely low-income households. With only 37 affordable rental homes available for every 100 extremely low-income households, the demand far outweighs the supply.

Mental Health and Substance Abuse

Mental health disorders and substance abuse are other significant factors that contribute to homelessness. Individuals grappling with these issues often struggle to maintain stable employment and housing. Furthermore, the lack of accessible and affordable mental health care and substance abuse treatment services compounds the issue.

Without proper support and treatment, these individuals face a higher risk of chronic homelessness, as their conditions can often create barriers to securing and retaining stable housing.

Domestic Violence

Domestic violence plays a critical role in homelessness, particularly among women and children. Victims of domestic violence frequently must flee their homes to escape abusive environments, often without sufficient resources or a safe alternative place to go.

This sudden displacement can lead to an unexpected plunge into homelessness, trapping individuals in a perilous situation between enduring violence and facing the uncertainty of homelessness.

Unemployment and Inadequate Social Safety Nets

Other socio-economic factors, such as unemployment and insufficient social safety nets, also contribute significantly to the issue of homelessness. Job loss or inconsistent employment can lead to a sudden loss of income, making it impossible to meet housing costs. Social safety nets intended to buffer individuals from falling into homelessness often fall short, leaving vulnerable individuals and families without the support they need.

poverty and homelessness in America

Poverty and Homelessness in America: The Intersect

Understanding the link between poverty and homelessness is fundamental to comprehending the broader societal issue of housing instability. Poverty and homelessness frequently operate in tandem, reinforcing one another in a continuous and complex cycle.

Statistical data indeed supports a robust correlation between poverty rates and rates of homelessness. This strong link suggests an intricate interplay between these two phenomena. In an economy where affordable housing is increasingly scarce and the cost of living steadily rises, those living in poverty are particularly vulnerable to losing their homes. A single financial emergency—an unexpected medical bill, a significant car repair, or sudden job loss—can quickly push an individual or family over the edge into homelessness.

Yet, once an individual or family slips into homelessness, the challenges associated with poverty can escalate significantly. Finding consistent, gainful employment becomes markedly more difficult without a fixed address, while managing to meet basic daily needs such as food, clothing, and transportation presents ongoing challenges. Moreover, homelessness can have significant adverse effects on physical and mental health, further straining already limited resources.

Children who experience homelessness or housing instability face additional obstacles, often grappling with disruption to their education and adverse effects on their physical, social, and emotional development. This early exposure to hardship can set the stage for the perpetuation of the poverty cycle into adulthood.

Poverty precipitates homelessness, and homelessness, in turn, exacerbates poverty. Once ensnared in this downward spiral, breaking free is a monumental task. Systemic issues, including lack of affordable housing, inadequate living wages, and limited social support systems, often perpetuate this cycle.

To mitigate this interconnected issue of poverty and homelessness, comprehensive solutions addressing the root causes are essential. These include but are not limited to:

  • Efforts to increase affordable housing
  • Enhance wage standards
  • Improve access to education and employment opportunities
  • Strengthen social support services

By understanding and addressing the intersection between poverty and homelessness, society can make strides towards breaking this relentless cycle.

Impact of COVID-19 on Poverty and Homelessness

The COVID-19 pandemic has indelibly marked every facet of our society, intensifying existing inequalities, including poverty and homelessness. As businesses shuttered and jobs evaporated in the face of lockdowns and social distancing mandates, many individuals and families found themselves in increasingly precarious economic situations. The virus’s devastating economic fallout resulted in an uptick in both poverty and homelessness rates across the nation.

Job losses were most pronounced in low-wage sectors such as retail, hospitality, and food services, sectors that already struggled with providing a living wage. Individuals and families living paycheck to paycheck found themselves suddenly without income and unable to meet their basic needs, including housing costs. The threat of eviction loomed large for millions of renters, pushing them to the brink of homelessness.

Moreover, the pandemic’s effects were not felt equally. It disproportionately impacted communities of color and people with lower incomes, exacerbating existing socioeconomic disparities. These communities faced higher job loss rates, higher infection rates, and consequently higher rates of housing instability and homelessness.

The pandemic also posed unique challenges for individuals already experiencing homelessness. Infection control in crowded shelters or encampments became a major concern. Access to public spaces and facilities, often crucial for hygiene and sanitation, became increasingly limited due to lockdown measures. Furthermore, individuals experiencing homelessness were more likely to have underlying health conditions, placing them at a higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

On a positive note, government aid programs played a crucial role in mitigating some of the pandemic’s effects on poverty and homelessness. Temporary eviction moratoriums, emergency rental assistance programs, expanded unemployment benefits, and stimulus checks provided much-needed relief for many at-risk households. These measures undoubtedly prevented many from falling into poverty or homelessness and helped some to climb out of poverty.

However, these aids were largely temporary, and their expiration threatens to spark a new wave of hardship, poverty, and homelessness. Furthermore, the programs did not reach everyone in need due to eligibility restrictions, bureaucratic hurdles, or lack of awareness.


Government Policies and Strategies

Government policies and strategies form a critical component of the efforts to alleviate poverty and homelessness. Through a variety of programs, federal and state governments seek to provide support and resources to the most vulnerable citizens.

Federal Assistance Programs

Federal programs form the backbone of support aimed at reducing poverty and homelessness. Key among these are:

  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP): Formerly known as Food Stamps, SNAP provides benefits that allow low-income households to buy eligible food in authorized retail food stores. This program is instrumental in mitigating hunger and reducing poverty.
  • Housing Choice Vouchers (Section 8): This program enables low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled to afford decent, safe, and sanitary housing in the private market. It serves as a lifeline for many who would otherwise be unable to secure stable housing.
  • Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP): LIHEAP aids eligible low-income households with managing costs associated with home energy bills, energy crises, weatherization, and energy-related minor home repairs.
  • Medicaid: This program provides comprehensive health coverage to some low-income people, families and children, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with disabilities.
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC): TANF offers cash assistance and supportive services to assist families with children, while EITC is a benefit for working people with low to moderate income. Both are instrumental in reducing poverty and preventing homelessness.

State-Level Initiatives

Beyond federal efforts, state-level initiatives and strategies further bolster efforts to reduce poverty and homelessness. Some of the significant initiatives include:

  • Affordable Housing Schemes: Many states implement these schemes to increase the availability of low-cost housing options.
  • Workforce Development Programs: These provide training and skill development to help unemployed or underemployed individuals secure stable employment.
  • State-funded Healthcare Programs: These programs supplement federal programs like Medicaid to ensure low-income and homeless individuals can access necessary medical services.

While these policies and programs have made significant strides in reducing poverty and homelessness, the complexity and persistence of these issues point to the need for continued commitment and innovation in policy-making. Building on the strengths of existing programs while adapting to evolving needs and challenges will be crucial in the ongoing fight against poverty and homelessness.

Role of Nonprofits and Charitable Organizations

In the intricate web of efforts aimed at mitigating poverty and homelessness, nonprofits and charitable organizations serve a critical role. These organizations’ dedicated work bridges gaps left by government programs, innovate solutions, advocates for policy changes, and brings a profound human touch to address these complex issues.

Feeding America is a prime example. As the largest hunger-relief organization in the United States, Feeding America operates a network of food banks, pantries, and meal programs to combat food insecurity. By distributing food to millions of people across the country, this nonprofit plays a significant part in reducing the hardships associated with poverty.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness takes a strategic approach to its mission. As a non-partisan, organization committed to preventing and ending homelessness in the United States, it works on developing, analyzing, and advocating for policy solutions to homelessness. It also offers capacity-building assistance to on-the-ground homeless service providers, ensuring that these vital services continue to improve and evolve.

Habitat for Humanity has a more hands-on approach to combating poverty and homelessness. Through its efforts, families in need are able to build or improve a place they can call home.

Habitat homeowners help build their own homes alongside volunteers and pay an affordable mortgage, fostering a sense of pride and ownership. This approach not only provides housing but also promotes stability and community engagement.

These organizations, along with numerous others, have made significant strides in reducing poverty and homelessness. For instance, many have developed innovative models of housing provision, such as the Housing First model, which prioritizes providing permanent housing to people experiencing homelessness. They also provide essential services like food distribution, healthcare, job training, and legal assistance that can be crucial for people struggling with poverty and homelessness.

Furthermore, nonprofits and charitable organizations serve as advocates, raising public awareness about poverty and homelessness, and campaigning for policy changes to tackle these issues at their roots. Through research and data collection, they contribute to a better understanding of these complex issues and inform the design and implementation of effective strategies.

The role of these organizations, however, extends beyond these measurable impacts. By offering compassion, respect, and dignity to individuals and families facing poverty and homelessness, they foster a sense of community and belonging that can be instrumental in helping people navigate and overcome their challenging circumstances.

However, the immense scale and complexity of poverty and homelessness mean that the efforts of nonprofits and charitable organizations alone are not enough. These organizations’ work needs to be supported and complemented by governmental policies, private sector engagement, and societal commitment to truly eradicate poverty and homelessness.

Who is most affected by poverty and homelessness in the US?

Poverty and homelessness in the U.S. affect a broad spectrum of individuals and groups, often reflecting societal disparities and systemic inequities. The most impacted populations include:

  • Children and Youth: Children and young adults, particularly those in single-parent families or in families with multiple siblings, are at a high risk of poverty and homelessness. A lack of financial resources, unstable family situations, and limited access to social support can contribute to this vulnerability. Homelessness can significantly affect a child’s education, mental and physical health, and overall development.
  • People of Color: Racial and ethnic disparities in poverty and homelessness rates are stark. People of color, especially African Americans and Native Americans, face higher rates of poverty and homelessness. This reflects a long history of systemic racism, discrimination, and inequality that affects access to education, employment, housing, and other resources.
  • Individuals with Disabilities and Mental Health Issues: Those with physical, intellectual, or psychological disabilities are disproportionately represented among the homeless population. Disabilities can make it more challenging to secure stable employment and can also increase living costs, thereby increasing the risk of poverty and homelessness. Mental health issues often compound these problems and can make it difficult for individuals to navigate assistance systems.
  • Veterans: While the number of homeless veterans has been decreasing due to concerted efforts, they still make up a significant portion of the homeless population. Factors contributing to veteran homelessness include physical and mental health issues (including post-traumatic stress disorder), substance misuse, and difficulty transitioning to civilian life and employment.
  • Survivors of Domestic Violence: People fleeing domestic violence often have to leave their homes and may have no place to go, making them vulnerable to homelessness. They may also struggle with financial instability due to their circumstances.
  • LGBTQ+ Youth: LGBTQ+ youth are disproportionately represented among homeless youth, often as a result of family rejection, discrimination, or violence related to their sexual orientation or gender identity. These youth often face additional challenges in accessing services, increasing their vulnerability to poverty and homelessness.
  • Low-Income Renters: Low-income families and individuals who rent their homes often spend a disproportionate percentage of their income on housing, leaving them vulnerable to homelessness in the event of a financial crisis or an increase in rent.

These groups often face a range of interconnected challenges that increase their risk of poverty and homelessness, from systemic discrimination and a lack of social support networks to specific life circumstances and personal factors.

homeless youth

What are the effects of poverty, homelessness, and hunger on children and teens?

Poverty, homelessness, and hunger have profound effects on children and teens, impacting their physical health, mental well-being, and educational outcomes. The consequences can be immediate, but they can also extend into adulthood, affecting life chances and opportunities. Some of the significant impacts include:

  • Physical Health: Children and teens experiencing poverty, homelessness, and hunger often suffer from poor health. They may not receive adequate nutrition, which can hinder growth and development and increase susceptibility to various health issues. Additionally, unstable or poor-quality housing can lead to exposure to toxins, pests, and other health hazards.
  • Mental Health: The stress and trauma associated with poverty and homelessness can have severe effects on the mental health of children and teens. They are at a higher risk of experiencing anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other mental health issues. In addition, children facing these circumstances may also experience feelings of shame, stigma, and social exclusion.
  • Education: Homelessness and poverty can disrupt schooling and negatively impact educational achievement. Unstable housing often leads to high rates of school mobility, making it difficult for children to maintain consistent attendance and academic progress. Lack of a quiet space to study, limited access to resources like books and the internet, and stress can also hinder academic performance.
  • Cognitive Development: Chronic hunger can impact children’s cognitive functioning and impede their ability to concentrate and perform well in school. The lack of adequate nutrition in early childhood can lead to developmental delays that may have long-term impacts on learning.
  • Social and Emotional Development: The stress of living in poverty or experiencing homelessness can impact children’s social and emotional development. They may have difficulties forming and maintaining relationships and may struggle with self-esteem and self-worth. They may also experience feelings of shame and stigma that can further hinder their social interactions.
  • Future Life Opportunities: The impacts of poverty, homelessness, and hunger can extend into adulthood. Poor health, lower educational attainment, and underdeveloped social and emotional skills can limit opportunities for higher education, stable employment, and economic security in later life.

Addressing the effects of poverty, homelessness, and hunger on children and teens is crucial, not only for their immediate well-being but also for their future potential. It requires comprehensive and coordinated efforts across sectors, including healthcare, education, social services, and housing. Such efforts can help mitigate the harmful impacts of these adversities and provide children and teens with the support and resources they need to thrive.


The data and statistics provided in this article are sourced from the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the World Bank, and various non-profit organizations.

Government Resources:

  • U.S. Census Bureau: The Census Bureau provides comprehensive data on poverty rates, income levels, and demographic characteristics in the U.S.
  • U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD): HUD’s Annual Homeless Assessment Report provides key statistics on homelessness, including breakdowns by state, demographic group, and shelter status.
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics: The BLS provides data on employment and unemployment rates, which can be crucial for understanding economic factors related to poverty.
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA): USDA’s Economic Research Service provides data on food security and nutrition assistance programs, both crucial aspects of poverty.
  • Federal Reserve: The Fed publishes research on income distribution and economic mobility, among other topics.

Nonprofit Organizations:

Helpful Contacts:

  • 211: A vital service that connects millions of people to help every year, such as housing support, utility assistance, and food banks.
  • The National Coalition for the Homeless: Provides helpful resources and ways to get involved in ending homelessness.
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