There are several reasons why poverty continues to be a critical issue in the United States. First, the hardship that often accompanies poverty plainly has adverse effects on individuals' physical and psychological well-being. A number of studies have shown that children raised in poor families are less healthy and worse off in terms of their cognitive development, school achievement, and emotional well-being.3 Poor adolescents, for example, are more likely to have low self-esteem, act out antisocial behaviors, and become delinquent. Poor individuals are also more likely to have health problems and die at younger ages. Some of the harmful effects of poverty are due to low income, while some result from other family conditions that often accompany poverty, such as family instability and low levels of education. Poverty often begets more poverty, as those who grow up in poor families are more likely to be poor themselves as adults. Many if not most people would probably agree that the continued suffering of some Americans in the midst of plenty is morally troubling.
Second, poverty has broader economic consequences. Economies thrive in societies with a vibrant middle class. Much of the strong economic growth in the United States in the twentieth century was fueled by the expansion of consumer markets. As the demand for new products soared, do did technological innovation, productivity, and wages and benefits. Declining levels of poverty contribute to a healthy economy by increasing the number of people who can purchase goods and services; that increase, in turn, stimulates economic growth and raises average standards of living.4
Third, high levels of poverty have serious social and political consequences. Poor people often feel alienated from mainstream society. Poverty also provokes social disorder and crime, and it reduces public confidence in democratic institutions if people do not feel their needs are being addressed by the prevailing system. The ghetto riots of the 1960s, for example, reflected the economic, social, and political marginalization of African Americans in U.S. cities. The unequal distribution of resources has contributed to the fragmentation of society we experience today, both nationally and globally.