While the United States is one of the most prosperous countries in the world, it is also home to extreme poverty. Rising inequality since the 1970s has placed many US citizens in chronic economic insecurity, homelessness, or on the brink of homelessness. According to some measures, approximately 60% of US citizens will live in poverty for at least one of their adult years.
According to US statistics from 2019, 10.5% of US citizens lived below the poverty line, with 45% of this group in “deep poverty,” living on less than half the amount of the official poverty line. Critics of the US poverty measurement believe it is inaccurate given the inflation rate. Housing costs alone have surged over 800% since the poverty line calculation was first created in 1965. International measurements, which define poverty as having less than half of a country’s median household income, calculate that, in fact, 17.8% of Americans were living in poverty in 2019.
According to a 2021 report by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, as of January 2020 580,466 people were homeless in America, though estimates suggest the real figure is much higher. Individuals experiencing homelessness have higher rates of substance abuse, which can be a significant barrier to finding stable employment or housing. Substance abuse often co-occurs with mental illness, and in the homeless population, the co-occurrence of serious mental illness and substance abuse is double that of the average population. Rigid welfare and social aid programs that require drug testing can prevent homeless individuals from accessing these services, further entrenching them in chronic poverty and homelessness.
Throughout the country, authorities are increasing the marginalization of homeless people by criminalizing aspects of homelessness. Sleeping outside, sitting in public places, and panhandling have all been criminalized in various states and municipalities. In one neighbourhood in Los Angeles, arrests of homeless people rose 31% from 2011 to 2016, while overall arrests fell 15% over the same period. Fines and fees, as well are large bail bonds imposed for these low-level infractions compound debt and further exacerbate the poverty and marginalization of the homeless.