Being Poor In America

Once, many years ago, I was babysitting a gifted young lad who wanted me to play a game of strategy with him. I’d never played before, but he was willing to teach me. Trouble was, every time I started to win, he remembered a new rule that put me behind again.

When I grew older I learned that there’s a name for that (other than cheating, that is). It’s called moving the goalposts. It’s actually quite possible that my young charge was not deliberately cheating. He said he wasn’t. He assured me that these were genuine rules that he really had forgotten. It needn’t be very suspicious that he only remembered rules that were to my disadvantage when I was winning. Could be just that other old deluder, human nature.

A goalpost is a standard of measurement- do the right things to get to the goalpost and you win points, if not the game. Fall short of the goalpost and you don’t win points, and you might just lose. It’s an arbitrary standard in a game in one sense, because there’s no objective reason the goalpost should look just as it does and be just where it is.  However, since it’s the same for everybody and all the players know what it is, it’s fair enough.

What would not be fair would be to move the goalpost twenty feet further in the middle of the game for one team, and not the other. Nobody does that. What would also not be fair would be to move the goalpost twenty feet in between games and then say that the players in the earlier game were better players because they made more goals than the players in the later game. For such comparisons to be useful, we need to know that the standards we use for measurement are equivilant.

We have a standard for measurement in this country called the poverty line or rate. It’s supposed to give us some idea how many poor we have so we can assess how well we, as a society, are doing.   This ‘poverty line’ goalpost was devised and released in 1965, part of Johnson’s ‘War on Poverty.’ In order to have a war on poverty, we needed to know something about the enemy, its size, its location, its numbers. We needed to know the goalposts. What was unacceptably poor, how many people did we have living in such unacceptable conditions, and what did we need to do to help raise them out of their impoverished conditions into some standard of living above the poverty rate?

We base federal funding on these calculations. We gauge the success or failure of an administration (to some degree) on these numbers. We tut tut when we are told that there are more people living below the poverty line than there were x number of years ago. We are dismayed when we are told that the numbers are worse than ever.

What we are not told is that the goalposts have changed.  The poverty line has been moved and it continues to be moved.  Being poor in America today simply does not mean what it used to mean.
The poor are buying more than ever before. How can the poor be spending more money on more stuff than at any other time in history at the same time we are decrying increased poverty? Perhaps ‘poor’ doesn’t quite mean what it used to.

While the official poverty rate suggests that the proportion of the American population living below a fixed “poverty line” has stagnated — or increased — over the past three decades, data on U.S. expenditure patterns document a substantial and continuing increase in consumption levels for the entire country — including the strata with the lowest reported income levels. And while the poverty threshold was devised to be measuring a fixed and unchanging degree of material deprivation (i.e., an “absolute” level of poverty) over time, an abundance of data on the actual living conditions of low-income families and “poverty households” contradicts that key presumption — demonstrating instead that the material circumstances of persons officially defined as poor have improved broadly and appreciably over the past four decades.
In short, America’s most relied-upon metric for charting a course in our national effort to reduce and eliminate poverty appears to offer unreliable, and indeed increasingly misleading, soundings on where we are today, where we have come, and where we seem to be headed.

Emphasis added. The criteria for identifying the poor was a series of math problems and complicated calculations starting from some assumptions

“based on money income requirements set “essentially on the amount of income remaining after allowance for an adequate diet at minimum cost.””

The idea was that this poverty line represented:

an income level below which “everyday living implied choosing between an adequate diet of the most economical sort and some other necessity because there was not money enough to have both.” In purely material terms, today’s American poverty population is incontestably better off than were Orshansky’s original poor back in 1965.

A 1960/61 survey revealed a level of poverty so low that for those below it, buying food was a luxury item. This was a shocking, though small, subset of people below the poverty line, and no later survey would uncover such poverty again. The percentage of underweight and malnourished poor has declined drastically, while the percentage of overweight poor has increased. To a large decree, malnourished children in this country are now evidence of ignorance and poor choices rather than poverty (and I would argue the fact that highly processed high carb foods are cheaper, and television is in every home)

Living conditions have improved, too.

In terms of simple floorspace, the homes of the officially poor were more spacious at the dawn of the new century than they had been three decades earlier. In 1970, almost 27 percent of poverty-level households were officially considered overcrowded (the criterion being an average of over one person per room). By 2001, according to the ahs, just 6 percent of poor households were “overcrowded” — a lower proportion than for nonpoor households as recently as 1970.

By this standard, we were ‘officially considered overcrowded’ for the three years we spent  in our older house. In 1970 3.4 percent of nonpoor families ‘lacked some plumbing facilities.’ This was true of 17.6 percent of poor families in 1970. In 2001, there were fewer poor families lacking some plumbing (2.6%) than there had been non-poor families in 1970.

Trends in furnishings and appurtenances for American households similarly record the steady spread of desirable consumer appliances to poor and nonpoor households alike. From 1970 to the present, poorer households’ access to or possession of modern conveniences has been unmistakably increasing. For many of these items — including telephones, television sets, central air conditioning, and microwave ovens — prevalence in poverty-level households as of 2001 exceed availability in the typical U.S. household as of 1980, or in nonpoor households as of 1970. By the same token, the proportion of households lacking air-conditioning was lower among the officially poor in 2001 than among the general public in 1980. By 2001, over half of all poverty-level households had cable television and two or more television sets. Moreover, by 2001 one in four officially poor households had a personal computer, one in six had internet access, and three out of four had at least one vcr or dvd — devices unavailable even to the affluent a generation earlier.

and while certain elements lamenting the continual poor quality of living conditions of the poor, the fact is that

In any given year, a gap in physical housing conditions separates the officially poor from the nonpoor — but the data for today’s poor appear similar to those for the nonpoor a few decades earlier.

What we are calling poor today is often the same standard that just thirty years ago was middle class.
In 1972/3 3/5ths of the poor had no car. In 2003, 3/5 had one or MORE cars, and 3/4 had some other motor vehicle (light trucks and SUVs are apparently not counted as ‘cars’).

Low-income and poverty-level households today are better-fed and less threatened by undernourishment than they were a generation ago. Their homes are larger, better equipped with plumbing and kitchen facilities, and more capaciously furnished with modern conveniences. They are much more likely to own a car (or a light truck, or another type of motor vehicle) now than 30 years earlier. By most every indicator apart from obesity, their health care status is considerably more favorable today than at the start of the War on Poverty. Their utilization of health and medical services has steadily increased over recent decades.

The OPR, official poverty rate, is not a static goalpost by which to measure deprivation and poverty. It’s moved outward and the poor of this country have moved upward.

In some quarters, criticism of the various shortcomings of America’s official poverty rate will be taken as evidence of indifference to the plight of America’s disadvantaged and poor. Such an inference is illogical at best. Proponents of more effective antipoverty policies should be in the very front ranks of those advocating more accurate information on America’s poverty problem. Without such information, effective policy action will be impeded; under the influence of misleading information, policies will be needlessly costly — and ineffective.

The official poverty rate is incapable of representing what it was devised to portray: namely, a constant level of absolute need in American society. The biases and flaws in the poverty rate are so severe that it has depicted a great period of general improvements in living standards — three decades from 1973 onward — as a time of increasing prevalence of absolute poverty. We would discard a statistical measure that claimed life expectancy was falling during a time of ever-increasing longevity, or one that asserted our national finances were balanced in a period of rising budget deficits.

From The Mismeasure of Poverty by Nicholas Eberstadt

What I have seen happen when people point this out is that a certain element will respond with a strawman argument- they will claim that what people like Nicholas Eberstadt are arguing is that the poor ‘don’t deserve’ to have cars, televisions, discretionary spending money, computers, air conditioning, and other ‘luxury items.’  But that’s intellectually dishonest.  The argument is not that those living at  certain socio-economic levels don’t ‘deserve’ those things, it’s about the goal posts, and whether or not it is really reasonable to say that somebody who has cable television, internet service and a computer, a cell phone, and a car, but has to decide whether or not she can afford to buy a second DVD player for Christmas and has eaten out so many times this week that she doesn’t have cash for disposable diapers  is not truly all that poor in the sense that most people mean (I am describing a real person and a real scenario) .

Is being poor in America about really being so poor that whether or not to eat that day is a question because there just isn’t enough money- not because the ostensible grown-ups in the household have blown the money irresponsibly- or is it about not have as much goodies as somebody else (today’s governmental standard)?  And if we’ve moved the goal post that much, can’t we at least acknowledge that when talking about public policy and discussions about how well we as a society are or are not doing?

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.