Let’s Talk About Poverty

You may or may not have heard of Linda Walther Tirado. Her essay, “Why I make Terrible Decisions or Poverty Thoughts,” was published by various Internet outlets and gained a lot of attention. Early media pieces focused on Tirado’s piece as giving a voice to the working poor. Tirado had two GoFundMe accounts: one set up by someone who wanted to fund her dental work and another (set up by Tirado herself) to fund her to write a book form of “Poverty Thoughts.” As the donations continued to climb, the conversation shifted from poverty in America to Tirado’s authenticity as a voice of that poverty. Examination of her past, aided by some unclear tense in her essay, turned the momentum of the essay onto her personally. It is deeply troubling but also fascinating to look at some of the accusations aimed at Tirado—she could not be in poverty because she writes well, has access to the Internet, had music lessons as a child, and traveled to Europe. These claims demonstrate the varied and conflicting ways people understand poverty or, more accurately, that many people simply don’t understand poverty.

Absolute poverty is when someone lives on less than USD$1.25 a day. It is disconcerting to note that more than 1.4 billion people worldwide live in absolute poverty.

Beyond this, we talk about relative poverty. The “relative” label indicates that this is a comparative measure. Generally, it is measured by households earning 20% of the median national income (median being the midway point in your data set, e.g. in “1, 2, 3,” 2 is the median). As in, if the median income was $50,000, then the poverty line would be $10,000. (And I talk about why that’s a problematic measure downstream.)

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the poverty line in the U.S. is $23,000 for a family of four. Approximately 16% of Americans live in poverty. Where I am, in Australia, the proportion is about 12%, though that creeps to 17% for children, and is much more likely in single-parent families.

However, income is simply one measure of poverty. Like its effects, poverty is complex. Most theorists (and practitioners) who work in the area use multidimensional measures of poverty. Oxford’s Poverty & Human Development Institute places emphasis on deprivation in specific areas of well-being. If the quality of a life cannot be measured by income alone, then poverty should also be a multi-dimensional construct.

The U.N.’s Human Development Index (HDI) considers the basic dimensions of poverty to be:

  • Living standards (e.g. clean water and electricity)
  • Education (e.g. access to schools and years of schooling)
  • Health (e.g. mortality and nutrition)

But there are lots of other dimensions floating around. Many theorists look at inter-generational poverty; how a lack of resources in one generation means that the next generation is not taught how to access social and economic capital. Social poverty (and its sub-categories) is one dimension that I’m surprised hasn’t got more traction. It is broadly defined as a lack of belongingness or connection within society. I remember learning about participation poverty—the inability to engage in social activities because of the cost—in a sociology class. One of my good friends was also taking the class (largely at my insistence) and whined, “I can’t go to ____’s birthday party this Saturday because I have participation poverty.” The urge to smack her was palpable but I resisted; violent gratification poverty.

But back to income poverty, which is the only thing anyone seems to care about (aside from Tirado’s childhood music lessons, apparently). Depending on where you are, income poverty may be a likely outcome of how wealth is distributed in your economy. For one, median is not a great measure because it doesn’t give you an indication of the gap in the haves and have-nots (called stratification). So, if my income data set consists of 55% of people earning $50,000 and 45% of people earning $200,000 (for simplicity’s sake), then the median is $50,000. So median doesn’t really tell us much about the patterns of wealth distribution in an economy. The graph below indicates where the spoils of economic growth have gone from 1960-2008. Internationally speaking, it is clear that the U.S. is a bit of an outlier.

Income Growth Gains Chart

This is reflected in the fact that median income has declined even during a period of economic recovery.

Median Household Income

The Economist has a wonderful gem for us all:

But the main message is a grim one. Most of the growth is going to an extraordinarily small share of the population: 95% of the gains from the recovery have gone to the richest 1% of people, whose share of overall income is once again close to its highest level in a century. The most unequal country in the rich world is thus becoming even more so.

I was very excited when Tirado’s “Poverty Thoughts” gained some attention. I thought it could open up a conversation on how people live, and that the American Dream seems structurally impossible to attain for so many families. Tirado is articulate and intelligent; she works two jobs. How can someone who has done “the right thing” have so little to show for it?

When you look at income stratification and the very slim definition of income poverty that applies in the U.S., I simply can’t understand how Tirado has been branded inauthentically poor or, worse, a hoaxer. In “Poverty Thoughts,” there was an opportunity that a personal, micro-level explanation of an individual’s circumstances could have led to a conversation that every country needs to have about macro-level issues—how wealth is distributed and what, as a society, we should to do to ensure that citizens have access to education, health, and reasonable living standards. I hope we can try to have this conversation again.

Editor’s Note: A version of this article previously appeared on Kinja and is republished with the author’s permission. 

2 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Poverty”

  1. What’s sort of amazing to me is that we’re just coming out of a huge financial crisis in the US. Everyone knows people who have slid down the economic ladder — people who are barely hanging on to their jobs or their houses, or maybe not hanging on at all anymore. Is it so difficult to believe that one can have had music lessons as a kid and be piss poor as an adult? Or be piss poor but not quite as piss poor any longer, but not middle class by any definition?

  2. All these definitions are so crooked. People saying that as long as you have a roof over your head, you shouldn’t be considered poor, saying that people can’t be poor because they own a computer ..urgh.

    But it’s the other way ’round as well (although in a much smaller way). Right now, being unemployed and having zero income (because gov. support doesn’t count somehow) I’m being considered poor. I have several well-filled saving accounts, can fall back on parents, boyfriend or brother and somehow I’m still being eyed as a risk and a case.

    I know it would be a privacy nightmare to say that everyone needs to come out and own up to their financial situations and the risk of shaming would be too big as well. But I think it’s clear that things needs to be re-defined and looked at.

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