Poverty in the US

Oxfam recognizes the importance of looking closely at poverty that often gets too little attention—such as that which exists even in wealthy nations like the US. A waiter clears a table at Lafayette Coney Island restaurant in Detroit, Michigan. Photo: J.D. Pooley / Getty Images

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Poverty endures in the US, trapping millions of people without hope of mobility for themselves or their children. Oxfam exposes the injustice of poverty in such a wealthy nation, and offers pragmatic solutions to chronic problems.

Although the US has a long history of prosperity, mobility, and justice, trends over the past 30 years have left too many behind—struggling to get by, with little hope for themselves or their families. America’s poverty rate is now at its highest level in two generations. Fifty million Americans live on incomes below the federal poverty level ($11,722 for an individual and $23,497 for a family of four). One in four children in the US (16 million) lives below the official poverty line.

This situation is not healthy for our society or our economy; nor is it inevitable. Poverty is about power, not scarcity. The richest country in the world should be able to sustain an economy that is healthy and fair. People who are willing and able to work at a full-time job should be able to earn enough money to support their families and find the ladder out of poverty. It’s not only right, it’s better for the health and welfare of all of us.

Oxfam believes that we can find a way to restore opportunity and fairness to our economy and to our society. And we believe this step is crucial to our work throughout the world. When we reveal how poverty in the US is deepened by racism, gender discrimination, denial of rights, and unjust policies, it will provide insights into the systems that perpetuate poverty around the globe. And as our world becomes smaller and the economy extends throughout the world, our solutions must encompass factors all along the way—both in the US and abroad.


Oxfam has three core programs in the US: Decent Work, Gulf Coast, and Working Poor.

Decent Work/Farmworker rights

Farm labor remains among the most unhealthy and underpaid occupations in the US, with a largely immigrant workforce that has been marginalized and exploited for decades. Oxfam has been working with organizations advocating for the rights and welfare of farmworkers in the US for many years. We support efforts to improve working and living conditions, raise wages, win the right to organize, and raise the voices of the men and women who work in the fields.

  • Oxfam is partnering with farmworker advocates on a new initiative that has the potential to improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of farmworkers. The Equitable Food Initiative (EFI) brings together stakeholders across the produce supply chain to build a set of fair and verifiable standards for a certification system that will guarantee decent wages, safe and dignified work environments, and freedom from discrimination. It will also enhance food safety and environmental sustainability.
  • Oxfam supports campaigns by groups such as the Farm Labor Organizing Committee  (FLOC) to rally support for farmworkers’ human rights. A 2011 study, State of Fear, found that farmworkers in the tobacco agricultural system in North Carolina suffer inhumane conditions. We have been supporting efforts to improve conditions, raise wages, and secure the rights of these workers to organize.

Gulf Coast recovery and restoration

In recent years, the people and the environment of the Gulf Coast have endured a series of terrible blows. When the BP oil spill hit in 2010, coastal communities were still reeling and recovering from several devastating hurricanes—Katrina, Rita, Ike, and Gustav. These events killed hundreds of people, destroyed homes and businesses, battered wetlands, and decimated fishing beds and oyster reefs. They also provided a glimpse of what the future could look like if we don’t invest in restoring the environment and building more resilient, sustainable communities.

Oxfam America has deep roots in and long ties to communities in Mississippi and Louisiana, and we’ve been proud to work with people to recover, restore, and rebuild. Roughly 80 percent of US counties that experience persistent poverty are located in the five Gulf Coast states, and it is poor people who suffer disproportionately when disaster strikes.

Oxfam America has worked in the Gulf Coast region since launching its first-ever domestic humanitarian response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Subsequently, we have partnered with organizations in Louisiana and Mississippi to help those affected by Katrina and other storms, as well as the 2010 BP oil spill, rebuild stronger, more resilient, and sustainable communities. Oxfam has also engaged in a range of advocacy campaigns, lobbying Washington, DC, and state capitols on behalf of these communities to ensure that legislation—such as the 2012 RESTORE Act—as well as regulation and funding meet the needs of the region now and in the future.

  • Our Gulf Coast Recovery and Restoration program combines financial support to key partner organizations with on-the-ground technical assistance as it focuses on addressing long-standing regional issues, including coastal restoration and economic development based on green jobs that employ local workers.
  • Oxfam played a crucial role in advocating for passage of the RESTORE Act in 2012. Under this historic measure, civil fines of up to $20 billion, imposed under the Clean Water Act from the 2010 BP oil spill, go to the Gulf Coast states to restore vulnerable communities, ecosystems, and local economies. Oxfam continues to work to ensure that this money is in fact invested in projects that repair and rebuild the coastal ecosystems, and that the funds go to train and employ the people most affected by the oil spill.

Working poor

Millions of Americans work hard at jobs that do not sustain them and their families financially. Low-wage jobs do not pay enough to provide even a modest standard of living; do not offer adequate benefits to protect workers from family illness and the demands of raising children; and leave workers unable to invest in paths to prosperity (like education) or to save for retirement.

  • Oxfam Oxfam conducts vital and groundbreaking research that exposes the realities of life for the working poor. In 2014, we commissioned original research about how low-wage workers are concentrated in Congressional districts across America. We produced a report (Working Poor in America), and an online interactive map that illustrates the number and percentage of workers who would benefit from an increase in the minimum wage in each district.
  • The map and report support a campaign in 2014 to urge Congress to increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10 
  • In 2013, we commissioned a survey that found that most low-wage workers barely scrape by month to month, are plagued by worries about meeting their families’ basic needs, and often turn to loans from family or friends, credit card debt, pawn shops and payday loans, and government programs just to get by. The workers facing the greatest challenges are the most vulnerable: parents (especially single parents), women, and those earning less than $10 an hour.
  • Oxfam seeks to bring fresh perspectives and new ideas to the debate about poverty, and to shine a spotlight on the harsh reality. In 2013, our Voices on US Poverty initiative solicited and placed 20 op-eds in national media outlets, and hosted dynamic events on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

The immediate situation for the working poor is dismal. And the future looks no better, as most new jobs being created are low-wage, benefit-poor jobs. The long-term consequences for American society and the economy are dire: growing numbers of people working at unsustainable, poverty-wage jobs, and unable to get ahead or invest in their children’s future.

Goals & priorities

Oxfam’s work in the US aims to expose and address the realities of domestic poverty—the causes, ramifications, and potential remedies. We work with others to develop solutions: partners on the ground; governments at local, state, and federal levels; and private sector actors. We work to:

  • Shine a spotlight on the realities of poverty in our country through media, events, publications, and research.
  • Raise the voices of women and men living in poverty to tell their stories and advocate for pragmatic solutions.
  • Support programs that promote opportunities for the most vulnerable (for example, job training in the Gulf Coast that provides skills needed in the new restoration economy).
  • Collaborate with partners that organize the most vulnerable groups of people to speak up for their rights and stand up for better wages and improved conditions.
  • Find innovative ways to bring together the many groups that have interests in building better solutions: private sector actors, consumer advocates, working people.
  • Explore and expose the particular challenges for poor women, working women, and families.

Achievements so far

Equitable Food Initiative (EFI)

Oxfam spearheaded the formation of the Equitable Food Initiative (EFI), a multi-stakeholder initiative that has the potential to improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of farmworkers by bettering working conditions, pesticide management, and food safety. EFI brings together workers, growers, and retailers in the effort to produce healthier, more responsibly grown fruits and vegetables. As produce farms comply with the EFI Standard, the entire food system sees benefits, all the way from farmworkers to consumers. EFI is training farmworkers in farms across the country, and EFI-certified produce will reach grocery shelves in 2014.

Agricultural labor advocacy

The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) launched a campaign against Reynolds American Inc. on behalf of farmworkers in tobacco fields and rallies support for their human rights. In 2011, Oxfam’s groundbreaking report State of Fear found that farmworkers in the tobacco agricultural system in North Carolina suffer inhumane conditions. Oxfam has attended annual Reynolds shareholder meetings with FLOC, and has rallied supporters to reach out to Reynolds to improve conditions in fields and camps.

Gulf Coast recovery and restoration

Oxfam played a crucial role in advocating for passage of the RESTORE Act in 2012. We worked with a coalition of groups in lobbying for the bill, and rallied our supporters to speak out about the urgency to send the funds directly to the Gulf Coast. The historic measure will send civil fines—amounting to as much as $20 billion under the Clean Water Act—from the 2010 BP oil spill to the Gulf Coast states for restoring vulnerable communities, ecosystems, and local economies.

Oxfam continues to work to ensure that the money from the fines is in fact invested in projects that restore and rebuild the coastal ecosystems, and that the funds go to train and employ the people most affected by the oil spill. We have issued several research reports:

  • A Way of Life at Risk: On the fourth anniversary of the BP oil spill, April 20, 2014, Oxfam released a report that explores how the oil spill devastated the livelihoods, families, and communities along the Louisiana Gulf Coast.
  • The Economic Case for Restoring Coastal Ecosystems is a report from Oxfam and the Center for American Progress (CAP) that analyzes the economic benefits provided by three coastal restoration projects that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration funded with grants from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. These three projects are located in the Seaside Bays of Virginia’s Atlantic coast; Mobile Bay, Alabama; and South San Francisco Bay, California. The analysis shows that the ecological restoration resulting from these projects can provide long-term economic benefits that far exceed project cost, in addition to the initial economic stimulus.
  • Integrating Social Science and Gulf Coast Restoration contains findings from a social science workshop at the University of New Orleans in 2013. A team of 55 scholars and practitioners convened to consider coastal residents’ needs, knowledge, and concerns—and how best to address those concerns in sound restoration projects.
  • Contracting Preferences for Restore Act-Funded Projects offers recommendations to the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council.
  • Beyond Recovery: Moving the Gulf Coast Toward a Sustainable Future proposes a plan to restore the region, building on existing assets and leveraging incoming federal funding to spark innovation and collaboration, putting local communities to work.
  • Rebuilding Our Economy, Restoring Our Environment is a report from Oxfam and The Nature Conservancy that explores how the emerging restoration economy offers new and expanded opportunities for Gulf Coast businesses and communities.

Mapping social vulnerability

Oxfam has commissioned and published two interactive maps that illustrate why and how some communities are at greater risk from hazards caused by climate change than others. Those who are already on the edge are the least able to cope and bounce back from these blows. Both maps explore the climate hazards of flooding, hurricane winds, sea level rise, and drought, and use a complex set of vulnerability measures.

Voices on US Poverty

Voices on US Poverty commissioned essays that offered fresh perspectives on poverty and new options for public policy to right these wrongs. The essays reached millions of readers in media ranging from Politico, the Orlando Sentinel, and the National Catholic Reporter to Stars and Stripes, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and US News & World Report.

  • The essay series culminated in an event at the National Press Club, featuring Oxfam President Ray Offenheiser, author Tim Noah as moderator, and four panelists: Ai-jen Poo, Sarah Burd-Sharps, Gen. George Buskirk, and Sister Simone Campbell.

The working poor in America

Hard Work, Hard Lives: Survey of Low-wage Workers in the US was a report based on a national telephone survey of low-wage workers about life for the working poor in America. The findings were not surprising, but were stark: millions are barely scraping by, worrying about how to pay the rent and put food on the table; many end up going into debt from loans or credit cards.

  • The report generated substantial media coverage, and was the focus of two events in Washington, DC, that brought together experts from many fields, as well as poor working women who conveyed the reality of their lives.

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