The Definition of Poor in America

I did search the board but didn’t find a thread on this specifically. This isn’t a new subject, but the OWS protests seem to bring this question into focus yet again.

When people talk of the poor here in the U.S., what do they mean?

What is the definition of poor in America? Should our measurement of poor be other eras in America? Other countries?

Can one be poor and own a cell phone? A car?

Is internet access necessary, and if you have it can you be defined as poor? Is a car necessary? A phone?

Some believe that if you have food and shelter you cannot be poor.

I know the technical definition of poor used by the government, but what does the populace think?

I have heard it said that 90% of the rest of the world would consider a roof over your head, a change of clothes and food for the next day “wealth.”

I don’t know exactly how true it is. I’m sure that more than 10% live in developed countries, and even the majority of our poorest would have these.

what is the current U.S. poverty level? Less than $16k for a family of four? 16k for a family of four would definitely be wealth in a lot of third world countries.

The definition is subjective, and is going to depend, to a large extent, on your political ideology. Having said that, I don’t see the usefulness of comparing life here with life in some 3rd world hell-hole, since we don’t strive to be a 3rd world hell-hole, and most people at the bottom of the economic scale can’t move to a 3rd world hell-hole.

Many liberals/progressives are going to say that things like “internet access” should be available to all residents, while some conservatives are going to consider anything other than basic food/clothing/shelter to be a luxury. I don’t know that there is an objective way to figure out who is more right.

Ordinarily, I would not have said that internet access was a basic necessity, except perhaps for students (who generally have it via their school libraries). However, state and government budget cuts mean that many government services are effectively only available online or in person.

To the extent that many of the poor lack reliable (or any) transport, and American cities have useless public transportation, many people have little or no option other than to deal with the government via the internet.

Which would be great if they actually lived in a 3rd world country instead of the US. They don’t.

Consider your 4 person family with rent of $1000 a month and food of $500 and utilities of $100. In 12 months, that’s $19,000 a year in cost. That’s marginal living right there - consider if rent increases by 4% or $480 dollars a year. Where does that money come from? Food is already $30 per person per week and really how low can you go there? Utilities, which might include a cell phone or internet as well as heat and light, would have to be cut in half and really where’s the room?

And we haven’t even touched on commuting/transportation.

I know the OP isn’t asking about the official definition of poverty, but for a family of four, the threshold is $22,350.

$1,000 rent is a lot. The average rent in some “apartment-rich” areas near here (NE Atlanta) for a 2-bedroom apartment is in the $700s. And of course the cheaper ones would be lower than that.

Atlanta is a cheap-ass city. You can’t find a one bedroom apartment for $700 in Orlando; trust me, I’ve tried.

The site I used,, gives $875 as the average for a 2-bedroom apartment in Orlando, and $752 for a 1-bed.

Those people don’t know what they are talking about. When I lived in Africa, even people living in the shanty towns had a roof over their heads - and the Congo requires a lot less in the way of a house to be comfortable than New York.

Yes, poverty in Europe means about the same as poverty here, except they have better health care and services over there.

However prices are very different. When engineers from my company move to our center in India they take a massive pay cut. but still do very well. When we lived in Africa, in 1961, my father got a $20 per diem allowance. That was enough to feed and house a family of four, in a nice house, have a servant, and save all his regular salary. It’s kind of like housing - despite the fact that the money my reasonable sized house is worth can buy an estate in many parts of the country doesn’t make it any bigger or my neighbors any further away.


I don’t see any hope of a middle ground on this subject, not from what I’ve seen and heard personally.

Some want everything for free, others claim any handouts mean they have a gun to their head.

I wonder, if all the bragging you hear from one side is actually true though. The “I live fine with no car, I walk 20 miles to work in all weather and I do just fine!”, and the “I worked for every dime I have and never took a thing from anyone”.

I kind of doubt it.

Well sure, if you don’t mind a 1-bed without a full-time butler.

That’s because the prices of things would also be lower there. I’ve heard a lot of Mexican immigrants expect to get rich in the U.S. when they hear how many dollars you can earn here – forgetting that here you not only earn dollars instead of pesos, you spend dollars instead of pesos. They get rudely surprised at how hard it is to earn a living here. (The fact that they must have all learned this by now and still keep coming over the border says some even more depressing things about Mexico.)

I just checked that site for sub-$700 1 bedrooms and they’re all rent-controlled, though I suppose people living near the poverty line would qualify.

I think for the conversation to be useful, we have to distinguish rural from urban poverty. In some ways, it is harder to be poor out in the sticks because your access to services is very limited–especially if you have no transportion. Access to jobs is hard for this reason. You’re more invisible and isolated.

But in some ways, it’s harder to be poor in the city. You can’t grow your own food. Crime is worse. Competition for work is greater and you’re more disposable. Because you’re constantly seeing how the “other half” lives and you are bombarded with material items, you may experience more angst about your lot.

Still, I’d rather be urban than rural poor. You have more opportunity to rise up out of poverty when you are exposed to things like libraries, free museums, and even subway rides that take you out of your neighborhood. Things that might be considered luxuries in the city–like having your own car–are necessities in the country.

It is difficult to answer the OP’s question. It is easy to say that if you have four walls, three meals, and a change of clothes on your back, you’re not poor. But such a bare-bones minimum does not take into account things like health care, financial resiliency (e.g., having savings versus living paycheck-to-paycheck), or the quality of life of the kids you are raising. Simply having shelter, food, and clothing does not ensure a kid will be educated properly–even with public school. Without a safe environment, they will not do homework and learn how to read. Kids need books at home as well as in the school–and they need someone who has enough time to read to them and supervise their studies. Perhaps literacy is a luxury for people in third-world countries, but it is now considered a basic requirement to get a job.

Anything that is required to get the most basic job cannot be considered a luxury. When most jobs require online applications, then having a computer with an internet connection will not be a luxury. Just like a phone is not a luxury now, since you cannot get a job unless the employer has a way to contact you.

Sure you can. Orlando is still relatively cheap if you don’t need to live in Baldwin Park or Metrowest. If you live North in Sanford or South in Kissimmee, it is even cheaper.

Some replies I’ve encountered to some of the points made above*:

  • If housing costs too much for you, then you need to move.
  • If you cannot afford a car, you need to move where you don’t need one.
  • Internet access can be had for free at any public library (see above for transportation issues).
  • All of these things are personal choice issues.

*note these are not my feelings on the matter, just what I run into in conversations about it.

Another thing I notice: When you talk about the poor, some people will insist that the poor aren’t poor at all, they simply make bad choices. Like if they’d only buy rice and beans instead of twinkies by the case they’d have plenty of food.

While I think some people have terrible eating habits that they then teach their children, I highly doubt the most purchased food stamp item is a box of twinkies.

Poor to me would mean (in part): I cannot afford any type of emergency. If I have a medical issue I 1) cannot afford medical care, 2) cannot afford to miss work due to the medical issue.


My transmission goes out so I 1) cannot afford to replace it 2) cannot afford to miss work due to the lack of transportation (and there is no public transportation to my place of work).

I hadn’t really considered Pine Hills or Parramore. :smiley: Both of the complexes in the first two links are rent-controlled, though. Not sure about the third.

Well, housing costs are greatest in cities.

Which is where good public transportion is.

And libraries.

Also, the library only gives you an hour or so at a computer during the day. That’s barely long enough to fill out one job application, let alone several.

The most poignant message I got out of Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickle and Dimed”
was that housing costs are the biggest hurdle to overcoming poverty. Where there are jobs, the housing is usually expensive. You can overcome this hurdle by having a roommate, but rental units often require a huge outlay of money, along with good credit and stable, sufficient employment. If you sign a lease with a roommate, and that roommate bails out before the lease is over, what are you going to do? While you scramble to find a good, drama-free, responsible roommate, you’re stuck paying rent and utilities you cannot afford.

The alternative is to live farther from work, where the buses may not go. That means you’ve got to have dependable wheels. Or it may mean living in a dump somewhere, where your chances of being a victim of crime skyrockets. If you’ve got kids, then you will have to worry about them being in danger. Where crime thrives, schools are bad. So your chances of raising well-educated children plummets while you try to live within your means.

These trade-offs are the hallmarks of poverty, IMHO. It’s the difference between raising a kid that will drop out of high school because he’s joined a gang, or not being able to afford to feed and clothe him because all your money is going to rent.

You limit your job prospects greatly by relying on mass transit in most areas of the U.S. I would guess. I know that it’s pretty bad in my location.

I think that some people make themselves pseudo-poor because of choices they make that are important to them. Like for us, we could be a lot better off financially, but it was important for us to live in an area with good schools. That drove our rent WAY up, and gave us much less money for other things, but my son goes to a good school and so it’s worth it. Our inability to spend money on certain other things makes us feel poor at times, but we have good enough credit that when the money isn’t there, we can put some groceries on a credit card if we have to. We are also in a phase of our life [husband in residency] that is temporary and likely to change for the better at a specified, known time in the future.

I’ve been poor-poor before. Panhandling for food, eating nothing but apples for a week at a time, Salvation Army turning on the electricity in my apartment after a month and a half without, couldn’t find a job (recession of 1990), fed my cats on Jack in the Box burgers that had expired their heat-lamp lives (they gave them to me for free because they were nice. At least the 3am shift people were.) So I know that we’re not poor now, even though money is very tight.

I have never been so poor that I didn’t have a roof over my head, though I had friends who were (and crashed at my house sometimes for a month at a time.) Those people were often on drugs, though, and could have made better choices and been in better circumstances.