Poverty in the USA

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In the wealthiest country in the world, nearly 40 million people (11%) live in poverty. Oxfam exposes the injustice of poverty in such a wealthy nation, and offers pragmatic solutions to chronic problems.

Poverty is about power, not scarcity. In the US, structural inequalities have stranded millions of working families in poverty, especially historically marginalized people--disproportionately Black and Brown, immigrants and refugees, and women and girls.

Oxfam believes that we can find a way to restore opportunity and fairness to our economy and to our society.

And as our world becomes smaller and the global economy reaches throughout the world, our solutions must be global as well.

Decent work

Oxfam’s work in the US is framed by the concept of Decent Work. Our economy can and should offer good jobs, ones that pay a decent wage, safeguard workers’ health and safety, provide pathways to advancement, and enable workers to have a voice in the workplace.

Millions of people today work in jobs that pay shockingly low wages, provide scant benefits, impose irregular schedules, offer unsafe conditions, and abuse their rights to stand up and speak out.

In essence, these workers are denied the basic right to “decent work." They are working harder and longer than ever, falling behind, and losing hope. As our economy widens the gap, our democracy falters.

Poultry worker justice campaign

In 2015, Oxfam America launched a campaign to expose the human cost of the modern poultry industry. Poultry workers in the US suffer extremely high rates of injury, earn poverty level wages, and work in a climate of fear.

  • In 2020 and 2021, as COVID-19 battered the workforce in poultry and meat plants, we worked with a broad coalition to demand that the industry take urgent, appropriate steps to protect the lives and well-being of workers.
  • Our report that launched the campaign, Lives on the Line, examines the hazardous plant conditions that lead to elevated rates of illness and injuries, and exposes industry practices designed to discourage workers from reporting violations and prevent organizing.
  • The subsequent report, No Relief, exposes the routine denial of bathroom breaks on the poultry processing line, and the lengths to which workers go to cope.
  • Oxfam’s multimedia web site uses video and interactive graphics to tell the stories of workers and advocates.

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 worked with organizations advocating for farmworkers in the US, supporting efforts to improve working and living conditions, raise wages, win the right to organize, and raise the voices of the workers themselves.

  • Oxfam worked with actors from all points in the food chain to create and incubate an 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.
  • Oxfam has supported campaigns by groups such as the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) to rally support for farmworkers’ human rights. Our joint report, State of Fear, identified the inhumane conditions facing farmworkers in the tobacco fields in North Carolina.

Challenges facing working women

While working women in the US have made tremendous strides, they still face myriad problems in the workplace and the home that often result in lower incomes, longer hours, fewer opportunities, and increased risk of harassment and abuse.

  • Best States for Working Women maps state laws across the country, and ranks states from best to worst on policies that impact women at work.
  • Undervalued and Underpaid in America takes a hard look at gender segregation in the labor market, and explores characteristics of the low-wage jobs where women are concentrated.
  • Working in Fear, a literature review of sexual violence against women farmworkers in the US, reveals that the tremendous power imbalance in the agriculture industry creates an atmosphere where sexual violence is common.
  • Women on the Line points a gender lens at conditions facing women on the poultry processing line.

Working poor advocacy agenda

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 meet the demands of raising children; and leave workers unable to invest in paths to prosperity (like education) or to save for retirement.

Oxfam conducts vital and groundbreaking research that exposes the realities of life for the working poor.

  • The Best States to Work Index is a flagship annual research product that assesses and ranks states based on labor policies.
  • Oxfam has sounded the alarm that it's well past time to raise the federal minimum wage, which has been stuck at the poverty wage of $7.25 an hour since 2009. Since 2014, we have produced updates of a minimum wage map, which illustrates the impact of low wages on populations by gender, race, family status.
    • The crisis of low wages in the US, released in 2022, illustrates the impact of low wages on a variety of demographics in the US: by race, gender, family composition, and age.
    • Ten years without a raise was our report in 2019, accompanied by an interactive map.
    • In 2016, our report Few Rewards outlined the four essentials for a Working Poor Agenda.
    • In 2014, we commissioned original research about how low-wage workers are concentrated in Congressional districts. 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.
  • In 2013, we published a report based on our 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, credit card debt, pawn shops, and government programs just to get by.
  • Oxfam seeks to bring fresh perspectives and new ideas to the debate about poverty, and to shine a spotlight on the harsh reality. Our Voices on US Poverty initiative solicited and placed 20 op-eds in national media outlets. The essay series culminated in an event at the National Press Club, featuring author Tim Noah as moderator, and four panelists: Ai-jen Poo, Sarah Burd-Sharps, Gen. George Buskirk, and Sister Simone Campbell.

Gulf Coast economy and ecosystem

The last 20 years delivered a series of terrible blows to the people and the environment of the Gulf Coast, one of the most vital, and most impoverished, regions of the country. When the BP oil spill hit in 2010, coastal communities were still recovering from several devastating hurricanes (including Katrina, in 2005) which killed hundreds of people, destroyed homes and businesses, battered wetlands, and decimated fishing beds and oyster reefs.

Then COVID-19 decimated states in the Gulf, with a particularly brutal toll on Black and Brown communities.

Oxfam America has worked in the region since launching its first-ever domestic humanitarian response, to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Subsequently, we have partnered with organizations in Louisiana and Mississippi rebuild stronger, more resilient, and sustainable communities.

  • With generous funding from Kellogg, Oxfam has had a Good Jobs program in Louisiana and Mississippi for the last three years, with the goals of strengthening job quality, work support, and worker competitiveness to access good jobs.
  • 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. Under this historic measure, 80 percent of the civil fines (as much as $20 billion), imposed under the Clean Water Act from the 2010 BP oil spill, will go to the Gulf Coast states to restore vulnerable communities, ecosystems, and local economies.

We also issued several research reports:

  • Building the Gulf offers recommendations from a workshop convened by Oxfam America, the Nature Conservancy, and the Corps Network, where experts sought to identify challenges and opportunities in integrating workforce development into future ecosystem restoration projects.
  • A Way of Life at Risk: On the fourth anniversary of the BP oil spill, 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. 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 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.

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