Being poor varies in the United States.
If you have children, you are generally able to get some sort of public assistance- although they have recently places time limits and more strict terms on who can recieve it. This sort of welfare includes both food vouchers and cash assistance. It allows a sparse but livable standard of life if you have a decent situation.
When I was growing up on welfare, we ate cheap meat (hamburger, chicken drumsticks, cheap cuts of beef), potatoes and a can of vegetables for most meals. By the end of the month we might have to resort to ramen or peanut butter and jelly. Canned fruit was out of our reach as an everyday thing. A popular trick was to mix half a gallon of regular milk with half a gallon of powered milk so it wouldn’t taste so bad. One could afford thrift store clothes, and maybe a new pair of decent sneakers a year. Generally children can get free low-quality lunches at school. Pregnant and nurseing mother can recieve additional vouchers for products like milk and cheese, but these must be spent in very restricted ways.
We had had a good situation. If we couldn’t afford dinner, generally Grandma would have us over. My mom was dealing with one kid. Others had it worse. It’s pretty common for a poor family to have other people’s kids in it (for example, a niece who’s mom is a drug addict, or your daughter’s friend who got kicked out of her house), or have some debt. They may also lack a social support system to fall back on in hard times. In these situations they generally get food baskets, donated toys for Christmas and may live in somebody’s garage or couch. It’s not all that unsual for someone to raise a family out of a car.
There is a limited amount of substidized housing. People living in these houses pay really cheap rents- maybe one third to one half market rate. There are usually long waiting lists for these homes (some take years, even decades), and they are often in bad areas. Many are only for families with children. There are other programs that help poor people to buy houses. Each area has it’s own set of programs and rules, and it can be hard to get good information on them. Some people still end up in shelters.
If you work, even a minimum wage job that cannot truely support you, you are likely eligable for no welfare at all. The “working poor”- which includes most people in service industries who are making minimum wage or just above- really have it the worst in America. Many of these people work two or three jobs. It can be hard to support yourself like this, much less a family.
Medical care for the poor also varies. If you have kids, they are usually (but not always) eligable for some kind of program. I remember going to clinics and emergency rooms as a child. Adults usually cannot get government substidized health care. You will not be turned away in an emergency, but you also cannot get preventative or non-emergency care without paying upfront. You can get help if you’ve broken an arm, but not if you have unexplained stomach pain. Even in emergencies, you will be billed- a couple stitches runs a thousand dollars, hospital stays can run into tens of thousands. They are lax in collecting on these bills, but you will have to pay them eventually or go bankrupt.
There are similar programs for the disabled, which I do not know the details of. Lots of mentally impaired people fall through the cracks. And things like drug rehabilitation are hard to get into.
If you are able bodied and don’t have kids you are pretty much out of luck. If you can’t afford a home, you have to find a shelter that will find you or sleep on the streets or in a car. If you do not have food, you have to find a soup kitchen or eat from the garbage. Plenty of good people who don’t have families or friends end up in this situation temporarily. But most of the people who are in this situation for the long term are mentally ill.
Schools are free, but they are funded by local property taxes. A school in a poor area is likely to be pretty low in quality, whereas schools in good areas can be as good as expensive private schools. Moving in to an area with good schools is a major concern for parents in the United States. In California (it varies) there are cheap two-year colleges. There is decent financial aid for public four-year colleges- I only had to pay a couple thousand dollars out of pocket for a very good education. But just about everyone comes out of college tens of thousands of dollars in debt. College tuitions without aid are astronomical.
I’m not well aquainted with being elderly and poor.
So thats a little bit on being poor in America.