Friday, September 18, 2015

What Does Poverty Really Mean, and How Will the Jobs Crisis Affect It?

Poverty:  “The state or condition of having little or no money, goods, or means of support; condition of being poor.” – From

But, as we define it now, is that actually true?

Our government has defined “thresholds,” below which it considers a person or family to be in poverty.  In 2014 they ranged from a cash income under $11,354 before taxes for one person 65 or older and $14,309 for two to $52,685 for a family of nine relatives containing exactly one under 18 years old.  That sounds simple, and is in fact not a bad back-of-the-envelope scheme determining who is poor, but what is wrong with it?

First, it is not geographically adjusted.  Even ignoring the best and worst neighborhoods in individual cities, the United States has huge cost-of-living differences.  According to, the most expensive American metropolitan area has general consumer prices averaging over 65% higher than the cheapest.  That ratio is as high as 138% for groceries, and rents in San Francisco are nearly 5½ times those for comparable Iowa City homes.     
Second, although income toward poverty thresholds includes investment earnings, it has nothing to do with existing assets or possessions, which can vary massively.  Third, it does not consider noncash benefits covering basic needs, such as food stamps or housing subsidies, but counts money unusable for survival purposes, such as that going for child support and work-related expenses.  Fourth, poverty determination under the federal system cannot be made for people in the military, college dorms, prisons, nursing homes, or other institutions, which distorts statistics.  Fifth, it makes no provision for which goods and services are needed more in different areas, from the near-necessity of air conditioning in parts of Florida but not in Minnesota to the reduced need for cars in cities in general.

Sixth, even if geographical differences were somehow accounted for accurately, we would have no agreement on what constitutes a minimum non-poverty set of belongings and other resources.  We can settle on seven things that should always be present:  a steady supply of enough breathable air; sufficient water for drinking and washing; enough nutritionally and calorically adequate food to maintain health; adequate and reasonably safe shelter; sufficient clothing in reasonable condition; enough basic personal hygiene supplies; and medical care (including drugs, doctor’s examinations and instructions, and surgery and other procedures as needed) to adequately combat and reduce pain from health issues as they arrive.  Beyond those needs and cost-effective ways of maintaining their coverage such as refrigerators, we will not only disagree, but will immediately run into problems from the cost and nature of individual needs and preferences, as well as debates on goods which may reflect unusually poor personal choices, for example, cigarettes.      

These problems mean that we cannot currently determine, let alone agree on, just who is doing without a fully sufficient set of necessities.  While conservatives may think that American poverty is overstated, since most people even below the line have what they need to live, and liberals, with a wider view of what constitutes necessities, often see understatement, it is certain that, in individual cases, it can be either.  With low cash income, disabled people I have known were often well below poverty thresholds, but with food stamps and almost free Section 8 housing, along with Medicare Part B health care and more than enough Social Security income for other necessities, they were not in need.  In contrast, many retired people publicized for choosing between eating decently and buying prescriptions would not count as poor since their federal benefits took them over $11,354 or $14,309.

Given all that, what is true poverty?  While there is value in some kind of income-based approximation, that is all such a thing can be, and should not be the main determinant of who is truly poor.  Our national goal should be preventing shortfalls in the seven human needs above, without regard to how much money changes hands.  There is no tax or charge levied for breathable air, and running water is almost universal and low-cost.  As well, we have access to numerous other things at no charge or nearly so, such as a vast range of information, music, reading material, games, and other recreational outlets on the Internet.  Broadcast radio and public libraries are still free, and use of roads, parks, and playgrounds still cost nothing.   

With a permanent job shortage in force, despite ever-lower official unemployment, money may often be harder to acquire than many other resources.  That means we need to consider providing more things as a public service.  For one idea, it would be a superb and eventually technically attainable project to provide free wireless Internet for the entire country. 

In some ways, such as how an increasing number of Americans survive, we are going back to the times before the Industrial Revolution.  It may surprise modern people to learn that countless people lived full lives while getting and spending very little money, but that was how much of the country actually worked, well into the 20th century.  With more and more basic resources either government-provided or free, we may go back to that.  Such a situation will not mean more poverty, in the real sense of the word.  After all, jobs are not the stuff of life – and money isn’t either.               

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