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Poverty, Homelessness, Mental Illness By The Numbers


Though some fearful Americans whisper that the U.S. poverty rates are headed towards depression-era levels; experts say the poverty rate is only headed towards 1960’s levelsnot a comforting fact.

Today, at least 16 percent of Americans are considered to be poor— is nearly 50 million people living at or below poverty level.

However, there is a step or two above poverty level where people are barely able to hang onand these people are not included in government statistics. They don’t qualify for social services, yet they struggle to pay their rent and utility bills each month, and they make choices between health care and groceries.

Part of the problem? The new high “normal” unemployment rates.

Not taken into account when compiling these statistics, is the fact that more and more Americans are simply dropping out of the workforce as the competition for jobs is fierce.* So fierce in fact, that people with advanced degrees and plenty of experience are willing to take jobs they are way overqualified for.

The stress and anxiety of realizing that you might be one of several hundred qualified (or over-qualified) individuals applying for one job can be overwhelming.

Among the worst off? Americans 65 and older. Their poverty rates doubled! One in six older Americans are living in poverty. We can attribute at least part of the problem to significant raises in Medicare premiums and drug costs. Remember, over 700 billion dollars in cuts to Medicare, and especially Medicare Advantage, were confirmed by the administration in early February (2013). It is expected that this will add on an additional $4000.00 (approximately) to each senior’s health-care bills.

Many seniors are already struggling, even those above the official poverty level of $23,050 for a family of four. Yet, even single Americans would have a hard time living on that income (remember, that number refers to pre-tax income) in most American cities.

Also among the worst off: Children. Nearly 20 percent of American children are living in poverty.

Also, African Americans had a poverty rate of over 25 percent compared with the general rate of over 16 percent.

The top five states where people are more likely to become (or be born), poor? California, the District of Columbia, Arizona, Florida and Georgia.

The stress of poverty and near-poverty can harm both physical and mental health.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Minority Health, “adults living below the poverty level were three times more likely to have serious psychological distress as compared to adults over twice the poverty level.”

Ask almost anyone who works in the fields of mental health (and addiction). We know that there is a link between poverty and mental illness, in some cases even a causal link, that often goes unremarked.

Although we disagree, in part, with some of his conclusions, two recent articles by DSW, Jack Carney, on MadinAmerica provide an interesting analysis and commentary. Worth a read: Poverty and Mental Illness: You Can’t Have One Without the Other and Poverty and Serious Mental Illness: Connect the Dots.


According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, Mental and Physical Health:

Around fifty percent of those who are homeless have mental health issues. (Others put the figure closer to twenty-five percent.)

Around twenty-five percent of those who are homeless have serious, chronic mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, depression, and bipolar disorder.

Many homeless (the exact number might be anywhere from around 40 percent or higher) have substance abuse problems (alcohol and/or drugs.)

Some reports say homeless rates have held steady in the past year (2012) or so. Others show that homeless rates have gone up, in some cases, dramatically, depending on the location.

Case in point? New York City.

Statistics taken from Coalition for the Homeless a NYC advocacy group:

In January 2013, an average of 50,135 homeless people slept each night in New York City’s municipal shelter system – the first time NYC has recorded more than 50,000 people sleeping each night in municipal shelters.

In January a record 21,034 homeless children slept each night in the municipal shelter system, a 22 percent increase from the previous year.

Homeless families make up nearly four out of five (78 percent) of all homeless people residing each night in the NYC municipal shelter system. And homeless children comprise 41 percent of the total shelter population.

The average shelter stay for homeless families with children is now over one year (375 days), up 10 percent from the previous year.

Read more of the Coalition’s basic homelessness in NYC fact sheet.

We can vouch for the sad state of affairs in New York City. There are more and more people (including families with children), on the streets than ever before and you don’t have to be an “expert” to notice this. Reports from Atlanta, Tampa, the Detroit area, Chicago, and elsewhere in the U.S. are saying there seem to be more homeless people.

And while we’re personally blessed to move in “volunteering-type” circles, there are, sadly, far more homeless than volunteers.

In addition to the raising poverty rates, Hurricane Sandy is still having an impact here in NYC (and New Jersey, too.) We know of families who are camped out in the homes of friends and family members (they’re the fortunate ones.)

But, there are still people in shelters who lost their homes and all their possessions during Hurricane Sandy. Remember, that was over four months ago!

So, how does someone deal with a decline in income? Joblessness? Unprecedented bills they simply cannot pay? The fact that they might be struggling, but still not qualify for any public assistance?

More coming soon…


*The number of jobs in America is at a thirty-year low. And, our population is much greater than it was 30 years ago!


Poverty, Homelessness, Mental Illness By The Numbers

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC & C.R. Zwolinski

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC is the author of Therapy Revolution: Find Help, Get Better, and Move On Without Wasting Time or Money and is licensed in addiction and psychotherapy with over 25 years experience as well as a consultant to organizations and companies in the fields of mental health and addiction. He is the executive director of an outpatient behavioral health program. Learn more about Richard here.

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APA Reference
& C.R. Zwolinski, R. (2013). Poverty, Homelessness, Mental Illness By The Numbers. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2018, from


Last updated: 12 Mar 2013
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 12 Mar 2013
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