“The deTermination of Poverty”

Who decides when another person is living in poverty?


While I recognize writing is often thought to be rhetorical, this isn’t a rhetorical question. Think about it.


Who decides when another person is living in poverty?


I personally think it is a rather difficult question. Mainly because I struggle with the premise that underlies it: that there actually is someone who decides this question for another person. It is especially clear to me when I reflect on what may be considered the inverse of this question.


Who decides when another person is successful?


Taking a linguistic pause, I think it is even fascinating how we word those two things different. We don’t talk about “living in success” although we may say that another person is “impoverished”. Framing poverty as something people live in can make it seem like it is a simple fix. If you don’t want to live in poverty, work. If you don’t want to live in the US, leave. If you don’t want to live in a house, move. None of those are that simple though.


Linguistics aside though, the question of who decides when another person is successful shares the same premise as the one about poverty: that there is someone other than ourselves who decides this question. And that just seems to be clearly incorrect to me.


The only person who can decide if I am successful is me.

The only person who can decide if I am living in poverty is me.


With that said we in the US have created a standardized way of defining whether or not another person is living in poverty from the government’s perspective. Here’s that definition in all of its federal rigidity:


“The U.S. Census Bureau determines poverty status by comparing pre-tax cash income against a threshold that is set at three times the cost of a minimum food diet in 1963, updated annually for inflation using the Consumer Price Index, and adjusted for family size, composition, and age of householder.”


Putting the question aside of whether or not the US ought to be determining poverty status, the first thing that strikes me about this definition is that it is built entirely on one thing: the cost of food. I think it is safe to say that food is a basic human need for life and as such has some relation to poverty as such. But I think it is pretty clear that there are other factors that would be involved such as water, housing, taxes, health costs, basic transportation, and (increasingly) access to technology.


The US government has been using this determination of poverty since the early 1960s and it has a very basic common-senseness to it which has helped frame the conversation around poverty for decades. Yet in my experience the challenges of “people living in poverty” are not simply a question of being able to purchase food. Often it is a much more comprehensive struggle of not having access to quality education, healthcare, or opportunities which position people to be financially successful in today’s world.


So why does the government simplify the poverty rate to food? Probably for simplicity’s sake. When Lyndon Johnson initiated the so-called “War On Poverty” it was only because they had been measuring the poverty rate at all that we were able to measure success. While I accept to some degree that attempting to measure poverty is a helpful inasmuch as it allows us to collectively work towards raising a standard of living for all, the fact that we are measuring it the same way we did over half a century ago is ludicrous.


The world has changed. Dramatically. The measure of poverty needs to as well if it is going to be an effective barometer for trying to elevate all of our citizens. And yet with all of this reflection I still come back to the original question:


Who decides when another is living in poverty?
And again, it’s not rhetorical.


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