The Definition of Poor in America

I really like what Amartya Sen has to say about this topic so I’m going to summarize my understanding of his thinking in Development as Freedom. To discuss what it is to be impoverished we first need to look at the most essential needs and what it is to be human. Traditionally food, clothing and shelter have been thought of as the basic necessities. We can elaborate on those, but there are also other aspects of being human that these 3 do not address, such as social interaction, health, access to political processes, etc. Here is where I would lay a baseline (if these are not met, then one can be considered to be impoverished):

  1. Access to and the ability to acquire basic Nutrition/Food that would promote healthy living.
  2. Access to and the ability to acquire basic shelter for oneself and one’s family.
  3. Access to and ability to acquire healthcare to address common sickness, preventable diseases and death.
  4. Access to and ability to acquire employment.
  5. Access to and ability to participate in social interactions.
  6. Access to and ability to engage in political processes.

I think this is a jumping off point - if you cannot acquire nutritious meals, basic shelter, employment, treatment for maladies, engage in social interaction or the political process, then you are impoverished. Each of these points can (and should be, especially in an American context) debated on for the details - but it is where we should start at a minimum.

And I’ve known people to have done exactly that and poached deer to put food on the table.

Bolding mine. (I don’t see how one can educate a child without a job and a phone. The relevance of this statement will be apparent below.)

Again, bolding mine.

As a start – repeat, as a start – I suggest that anything that doesn’t allow one to raise a child with at least an ability to read at the high school level should be defined as poverty in this country. As I say, it’s a start but by no means complete definition.

You may now start flinging rotten vegetables.

I don’t think the average apartment on 125th street in New York has a lot of acreage.
As for deer, I used to live in Princeton, where you could knock off a deer in winter if you drove around long enough on Elm Ridge Road, but the average city poor person doesn’t have a pick up truck or a shotgun. I also would love to see the reaction of a standard New York cop when he drives this deer down Broadway. Might make a great bit (and it is close to a Woody Allen routine) but not too practical.

Thanks to free public education, you can get your kid an education with neither of these things. However you will probably have to send him or her to a rotten school. And, in Alabama, you had better not look too Mexican.

googling will tell you there are all kinds of ways to determine poverty. there’s absolute and relative poverty.

Like OpalCat’s family, mine has “chosen” to be poor-ish right now, as a tradeoff for better schools for our kids. We found a real bargain, and now pay about 25% more for housing than we did a year ago, but there haven’t been any gang-related shootings at my son’s current school lately. (Typically, our current home should have cost us about 40% more than we paid. We were diligent in our search and lucky to find this one.)

But I’ve often commented IRL that poor in modern America is funny: a poor person here is likely to have housing, transportation, and an abundance to eat. Probably a phone, a microwave, television, access to a computer and the internet, etc. But one medical emergency or auto breakdown is apt to change your status from poor to desperate/out of work/homeless. It’s funny, but not always in a ha ha way…

Point well taken. I was originally thinking of the average farm in Snow Hill, Maryland, but the average (Well, sort of average…well, significant portion?) Washington, DC suburb has a deer infestation that is downright hilarious (Assuming your mind works that way. Mine does.). One could easily – and consistently, I might add – put venison on the table with a snare and a 12 foot pike and only break a small raft of laws. (Why yes I have thought about this, since you ask.) But you’d very likely piss-off most of the neighbors who would, in turn, rat you out to the king’s foresters – excuse me; the local police department – faster than you could sing The Lincolnshire Poacher.

12 foot pike? Maybe not.

Just gotta set the snares right. I can imagine the grins and giggles when someone finds a trash can full of guts and reports it to the NYPD.

Yes, as I mentioned in my OP: I know the technical definition of poor used by the government, but what does the populace think?.

I’m not sure where poor people in the south would store a whole deer. If I tried to smoke the meat a la indian jerky style, I think the apartment complex might complain.

Bolding mine.

And that’s my point. It’ll very likely result in a child not being literate on a high school level. You probably couldn’t raise a child without a job which, in turn, would require a phone.

just my guess: reduced purchasing power. if it’s for luxuries, it’s not too bad. if it’s for the basics, then that’s bad.

You barter the “extra” meat for vegetables. Or only poach the undersize ones. Or, better yet, the fawns. A 40 pound deer is not gonna give you 40 pounds of meat. (Hawley Smoot do I have to think OF EVERYTHING?)

There’s more rat biomass in the city than deer. And they’re easier to hunt and storage won’t be an issue.

When it comes to raw dollar amounts, there are basically two numbers that matter.

Below $1.25 a day you hit extreme poverty, which is what about 16% of the world is dealing with. Extreme poverty is the level at which it is almost impossible to meet even basic needs for nutritious food, clean water, basic health care for easily preventable diseases, etc.

The other important number comes around $5,000, which is an average income that correlates to a lot of positive change. This is the number where money stops being so important to happiness. Dip below $5,000, and people start becoming very unhappy very quickly. Above $5,000 and more money still makes people happier, but not really all that much. $5000 is also the point where life expectancy and drops in fertility start leveling off. It should be kept in mind that this is not a magic number- a lot of these effects can be the result of the social organization that allows GDP per capita to get that high- but it does seem to be a critical point where you start getting in on the benefits of the modern world.

Other than that, money really is besides the point. Poverty outside of these bounds is about your place in society. It is about your access to society. The real crime of poverty is not that you don’t have X amount of dollars in your hand. It’s that you are not able to be a part of the things that make us human- meaningful work, family, social organization, and hope.

Are you able to spend time with your family, or are you working triple shifts at McDonalds or stuck in a coal mine hostel? Do you have security, or is your neighborhood full of gangs? Are you scared your children will join gangs, or are you pretty sure they’ll have a nice future? Are you able to join a church, social group, or other community activity that you find meaningful, or are you too sleep deprived and haggard to have social interaction outside of work? Does your work require that you get demeaned or abused? Are you able to learn new things? If something bad happens to you, can you seek justice? Are you able to participate in at least some leisure activities? Can you learn new things? Could romantic love be a part of your life? Do you get to choose who you marry, or refuse sex if you want toIf you are addicted to something, do you have access to treatment?

These kinds of questions are the real questions that determine the toll of poverty. There are some things that the poor in the US have pretty good. We can generally, for example, vote or access education for our children.

In other ways, the US has it worse. A mother who works two jobs to squeak by is going to have next to no social life or interaction with her family. This is a sharp contrast to a somewhat-above-the-extreme-poverty-line mother in Cameroon who works hard in the home, but has never missed a baby’s first step, and has a full social life with her neighbors. A poor family in China probably doesn’t face violent crime in the way they would in a US inner city, and generally is less likely to have to worry about their sons becoming killers and drug dealers.

Anyway, it’s a complex thing, and there are a lot of ways of thinking about it. The world is a funny place. One of the top thing that North Korean refugees express when they have spent some time in South Korea is…a desire to go back to North Korea. North Korea sucks as much as anything can suck. But in South Korea they are on the bottom of the social totem pole, alone, unmarriagable (poverty related stunting makes it hard for the men to find partners), working the worst jobs for bare minimum wages, devoid of the beliefs and sense of mission that they grew up with, and without the social context of their family, they often hate their new lives, as material comfortable as they may be.

Intersting stuff even sven, I’m going to ponder what you wrote a bit.

Good stuff!

BTW why did you pick $5000?

Can you clarify the bolded? Are the North Korean men physically inferior to South Korean men?

North Koreans are on average, due to malnutrition, about two and a half inches shorter than South Koreans, and the gap is even greater between young North and South Koreans, up to like five inches different.

I always find it interesting that we define poor in one way alone–how many dollars run through your fingers.

Some of the defined poor aren’t poor at all. For instance, in terms of dollars, I am “poor.”

Nevertheless, this “poor” man owns almost $100,000 worth of music gear and instruments, and another $50,000 in other property, and I’m not counting my store building, since the bank still mostly owns that.

I barter every chance I can get. The local farmer’s market is half a block from my store, and I have barter arrangements with several of those vendors–books for food. My doctor lets me barter for the office visit fees with book credit. I’d have to pay cash for tests etc. I counter the need for health expenses by eating right and exercising.

Last time I estimated, I have over a million dollars’ worth of books (at my store prices). If I sold them all today I’d be wealthy. However, I don’t want to sell them all today in any way shape or form.

I don’t think I am poor at all, but nevertheless, I meet the federal definition of poor.

Most people are going to be unable to barter for healthcare, food, or shelter. I personally have zero to barter with, unless I sell my body.

Irrelevant to the current discussion IMHO, the U.S. is not a bartering society.

The “Definition of Poor in America” is the freaking title of the OP.

You’d be surprised how many people will barter, I suppose. THere was one celebrated case of a guy starting out bartering some frivilous item, (was it a paperclip?) on Craigslist and wanting to trade. He parlayed his trades all the way into a house, just trading for something a little better.

Post an ad like this: “I’m bored and I have a paperclip. Since I can’t think of anything else fun to do with a paperclip, I want to trade it for a cheap ballpoint pen, just so I can have a laugh on the phone with someone.”

You have more than you think. Except a willingness to try and a desire to dismiss it.

Perhaps you might entertain the idea that our society has trained you in terms of dollars only=wealth and it is not necessary to be so trained?