What is Poverty?

Many law students, particularly those whose sole source of income during their studies is a loan check delivered around the beginning of each new semester, consider themselves to be 'poor.' It is often the case that things don't get much better for them following graduation as much of the earned income they work so hard for goes toward paying back the loans they took out to pay for school in the first place. However, these students are hardly ever living in poverty in what we would consider to be a traditional sense of the word. They have roofs over their heads, food, clothing and even something left over for the odd Thirsty Thursday or Bar Review event.

Though the example of law students is a bit light and facetious, it does help us dive into the main topic of post with a bit of perspective and a baseline. That said, and if we are right that law students aren't truly poor, how then should poverty be defined in modern America? Should it be defined by income? Standard of living? How should geography play into the equation? Should should ownership of what most people consider to be luxuries play into the analysis? Such questions can very rapidly transition into a new line of queries which can get to the core of an even more elemental debate; what material and social dignity rights should individuals in a society have versus what responsibilities the members of a society have to provide for their fellow citizens.

While we will leave the social justice questions for another day, another commentator or another forum (no shortage of those with campaign season coming into stride), we will spend a few minutes on the main question of what poverty really means. To us, a very basic definition of poverty would be living in an environment lacking in basic needs (food, clothing and shelter). This is why law students who have what they need don't qualify as poor in our reckoning.

However, this simplistic idea of 'needs' which so many of us learned very early in grade school isn't the same definition that is used by the government. Indeed, according to Census Bureau, over 40 million Americans lived below the poverty line as recently as 2009, and any reader of this page knows that the economy hasn't necessarily chugged along since then. What goes into this measure? It is difficult to define exactly, because different measures are used for different size families (for sceptics, we aren't ducking this question; there are 48 possible poverty thresholds...it is truly that complicated.) For anyone curious enough to dive into the actual numbers, the Census Bureau provides more information here. Incidentally, it would seem that under government measures, many law students taking loans would qualify as poor after all, but we digress.

Even for those who followed the Census Bureau links above, it may perhaps difficult to put what poverty means into some perspective. Not to worry, another government agency has done that heavy lifting for us. Below is a chart from the Department of Energy describing what percentages of households which qualify as being under the poverty line have certain goods, painting a bit clearer picture of how some 'poverty stricken' people are currently living.

Though some of these things could arguably be considered necessities in a modern society (refrigerators, air conditioning in some parts of the country, stoves, etc.), there are many items on this list that cannot be thought to be anything but luxury goods. Things like dishwashers, extra televisions, big screen televisions, video game systems, VCR and DVD players; all of these can be thought of as extras. And, in the US, many of these extras seem to be fairly common, even among what some consider to be a 30+ million strong poor population.

As an American, I believe that it is great when my fellow citizens can live in comfort, and I certainly would not begrudge hard working citizens some luxuries. That is not the point of emphasizing the goods that the supposed poor have. However, it does maybe provide some food for though regarding how accurate some of the government definitions are.

This is particularly when many of the poverty numbers released by the government are utilized to nefarious ends by hostile governments trying to repress their citizenry and dim the US as a shining beacon to strive for. For example, and as noted in a recent Heritage Foundation piece*,

"...Al Jazeera uses U.S. government poverty numbers to tell the world what a terrible place the U.S. is. Al Jazeera tells a global audience: “37 million people—that is one in eight Americans—live below the official poverty line. That means these people are often homeless, hungry, and have no health insurance.” Al Jazeera shows a representative poor American family: six people living in a one-bedroom apartment. Other stories go farther. An Al Jazeera special report on “poverty in America” shows America’s poor as homeless or living in rat-infested, crumbling shacks while suffering from life-threatening malnutrition.

Al Jazeera is not alone. The Teheran Times informs its readers ('an astonishing 47 million Americans...live in poverty')...Similarly, the Chinese government uses the U.S. Census Bureau’s misleading poverty reports to condemn the U.S. government for human rights violations...Beijing fumes that, in America, the number of “[p]eople in hunger increased sharply…About 50 million Americans experienced food shortage [in 2009]” and that “nearly one in four children struggles with hunger.""

Though many Americans are undoubtedly struggling right now, to say that nearly 50 million citizens have gone hungry or are have been homeless in recent years is clearly misleading, particularly when many of them have video game systems to play on. Putting foreign government propaganda aside, this definitional issue creates problems much closer to home.

Most notably it becomes increasingly difficult to have an honest and productive national conversation about poverty when it is clear that so many individuals considered poor under government definitions actually have what they need and more. Anytime those who advocate to do more for the poor enter the fray, they will inevitably be shouted down by those who can point to examples of those who supposedly need help living in comfort with many modern amenities.

Aside from the unfortunate image problems the currently over-inclusive definition of poverty creates abroad, it is clear that an overly broad definition of poverty hampers even more important domestic debates over poverty issues. The current definition captures some individuals and families that don't need the help of society to the extent that the term 'poverty' would suggest. Until a better definition of poverty is created, debates over what to do about its true victims will continue to turn on examples and counterexamples from both sides of the debate which are stretched, counterproductive and ultimately fruitless in effect.

*See the Heritage Foundation article linked to for omitted citations.


  1. Anonymous27/7/11 22:07

    I recall a (possibly apocryphal) story about when Kruschev visited Los Angeles, and his reaction to Watts, which he had specifically requested to see because of riots driven by both economic and racial injustice, prompted him to say: "where are the slums?" At another point after the visit, he is said to have remarked: "the trouble with you Americans is that you live too well."

    I agree that most Americans think of poverty as not being able to afford necessities. But there is another, also useful, view. What drives many of the social ills accompanying poverty is an expectations gap; the gap between what a person perceives as "middle class" or an "expected" standard of living, and what they can actually achieve.

    A second, unrelated point, is that many of the luxuries possessed by the poor are owned because they are, not infrequently, cheaper than groceries. A used Sega Dreamcast qualifies as a "video game system." A used television would be a second television. And a VCR should, quite frankly, be free. Having furnished an apartment with items from a Salvation Army store, I can report that many of these luxuries, while not necessities, are so cheap that it does not surprise me that many poor people possess them. That's excellent news; it's part of how progress when our baseline standard of living goes up. But it doesn't indicate a lack of real and urgent need amongst the people who possess them.

  2. In Germany (and I believe WTO and OECD use the same concept) people use the distinction between absolute and relative poverty. Absolute poverty applies to all countries and all societes and it is the lack of basic needs meaning goods you need to survice (water, food, etc).

    Relative poverty is restricted to a certain country or society and defined as a certain percentage of the overall average income individuals have in a society. WTO defines it as half of the average income. Other concepts range between 30 and 60 % of the average income.

    Having only half of the average income of your country you are relatively poor compared to others. You are on a low level in the "pecuniar" hierarchy and cant afford what other people have as a standard.

    A person being considered as relatively poor in Germany is way above the standard of most islamic or third world countries (due to guaranteed social aid here). A German social aid receiver would never be considered as absolutely poor, having enough food, apartment, clothes and TV :)

    Since people need social distinction and a place in a social hierarchy, relatively poor people, even when they have enough to eat, tend to be depressed and think low of themselves. It doesnt mean anything to him that they are richer then hard working people in Africa.

  3. Josh Sturtevant1/8/11 09:43

    Great thoughts by our readers on this topic. I was particularly interested to see how the question of poverty is handled in Europe as I think that type of distinction is what I was reaching for in the original post. Many thanks to Herr Schilling for putting a more elegant labelling on the concept.

    In America, these two categories are intermingled, which is what I believe causes the problem. Since we talk about those in absolute need in the same way we talk about those with relative need, we lose sight of the distinctions, and thus the needs, of each group. In the end it is a far less constructive conversation.

    This isn't, of course, to suggest that society doesn't have work to do for each group. Indeed, I did not intend to suggest in the original post that those who are relatively poor don't require help just because they live better than most of the people in a third world country.

    However, those who are on the streets and those who have a video game console, though old, or a VCR, even if second hand or free, clearly have different problems. When the average American, the average member of the media, and even the government fails to see a difference, both groups end up suffering.