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Poverty in America: A problem hidden 'In Plain Sight'

By Barbara Raab, Senior Producer, NBC News

Welcome to the home of “In Plain Sight,” a special initiative by NBC News to report on poverty in America, especially as it appears in forms and in places that many people overlook or choose to ignore.  

With more than 46 million Americans living below the poverty line, including 16 million children, our goal is to put a human face on a problem that often can seem overwhelming.

We also plan to cover efforts to ease or even eradicate poverty. This includes heroic individuals who have devoted their lives to working among the poor and the debate over the proper role of government in fighting the problem.

What, exactly, is "poverty"? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, it's less than $11,945 per year for a single person, and $23,283 for a family of four.

Nearly a quarter of people in poverty have jobs, but their pay is so low that they still don't have enough money to meet basic needs like food, shelter, clothing and health care. It's also worth noting that women are more likely to be poor than men, and African-Americans, Latinos and Native-Americans are more likely to be poor than whites.

An evolving conversationThis nation has been talking about poverty and how to solve it for a long time now.

President Johnson declared a “war on poverty” in his 1964 State of the Union speech. At that time, the poverty rate was 19 percent and the poverty threshold was $1,558 for individuals.

From LBJ's declaration came the American safety net -- programs like Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and cash assistance. Over the next decade, poverty rates in the U.S. dropped to their lowest level -- 11.1 percent -- since the government began keeping a comprehensive count.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich made a deal on what is often called “welfare reform,” with a new emphasis on work and self-sufficiency.

Some hail the overhaul of the welfare system and the subsequent drop in the number of people receiving cash assistance as a huge success. Critics say the safety net has become frayed, with too few getting too little help.

In the lead-up to President Obama’s State of the Union address last month, some of those who believe there’s a lot more work to be done to eradicate poverty in America took to Twitter using the hashtag #TalkPoverty, imploring the president to address the issue and propose solutions. He did not disappoint.

So while the conversation about poverty in America has been going on for decades, it seems to be taking on a new urgency, for women and children struggling to survive (more than half of poor families are headed by single moms), for formerly middle-class families and individuals who have slipped down the ladder, for young people starting out under the weight of crushing student debt.

Share your thoughtsWe will explore those and other themes here and on NBC News broadcasts. And we’d like to know your thoughts: What should we be covering, what examples of poverty are you seeing in plain sight? Email us at InPlainSight@nbcuni.com and tweet using the hashtag #inplainsight.

A quick word about me: I am a longtime NBC Nightly News writer and producer, with a background in American history and law, on leave from my position at Nightly to lead this project. I am @bbabbo1 on Twitter.

And a final word about support for this project: The Ford Foundation has made a grant to NBC News to facilitate our reporting on poverty in America, and we welcome their support.

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