I'm about to get wonky on you. Get ready. Bear down.
The point of this post isn’t to make us feel guilty for being well off or comfortable; I’m proud of what I’ve earned and accomplished. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
But I’d like us to start realizing what it’s like for people on the other side of the street. And if poverty is a complex social issue, which it is, then why are we willing to fob off uncomplicated and superficial remedies (like marriage policies, like bashing immigrants, like trickle down economics and tax breaks for the rich)?
Note: Most of the numbers mentioned in this post are from a report that can be downloaded from here.
There are actually four kinds of poverty, based on our federal index which is based on what a family would need annually to earn to feed them (no, it's not a perfect measure, but it's the way we measure poverty now. If you want to read more about how the index is measured and critiques of how it's measured, go here:
Here's our federal poverty level index for 2006:
Family size - 2006 poverty guidelines:
1 - $ 9,800
2 - 13,200
3 - 16,600
4 - 20,000
5 - 23,400
6 - 26,800
7 - 30,200
8 - 33,600
You are Income Poor if you fall within the parameters of the FPL
You are in Deep or Extreme Poverty if you live at or below 50% of the FPL
You are Low-Income or Near Poor if you live at or below 200% of FPL and have trouble meeting your basic needs because of rising costs (child care, housing/rent, health insurance - if you have this at all.)
A household is Asset Poor if it doesn’t have enough net worth to live at the poverty level for 3 months - if you experience one significant life event (medical crisis, job loss or divorce) you can end up homeless or go straight into Poverty.
(While this index is based on food cost, which probably needs to be changed, here's what the index doesn't include: cost of transportation/commute to work, cost of child care, cost of utilities, or the rising cost of housing. Factor those costs and the number of those who qualify as poor would probably increase rather than decrease.)
You might be poor if you are old; nearly half of IL seniors would be in poverty if not for Social Security benefits; Social Security benefits are primary source of income for two-thirds of IL seniors; 70% of senior women living alone live near poverty. Senior men had a median income of $20,363 in 2003 and senior women had a median income of $11,845.
(Dude. Who can live on that??)
You might be poor if you are a child; 37.2% of children lived in low-income families in 2004; 15% of children in IL lived in houses where the head of household didn’t finish high school (an indicator of poverty); 11% lived in crowded housing.
You might be poor if you are disabled; in IL the monthly SSI payment is $564 (the national average is $617.02); a disabled person would have to spend more than ALL of their SSI income to rent a one-bedroom apartment.
You might be poor if you are a woman; IL women have higher poverty rates than men; 13.3% were living in poverty compared to 11.5% men in 2004; 31.4% lived in near poverty compared to 26.7% of men; compound that with the worst gender wage inequity of the 5 most populous states and you have women working their asses off for not a whole lot in return. Most single heads of households in the state are women.
You might be poor if you are Black or Latino: nearly 30% of the black population in IL lives under the FPL; 16% of the Latino population in IL lives in poverty.
Maybe most of us think of the victims of Hurricane Katrina when we try to envision who’s poor – they were visibly destitute, almost sharecropper poor. But that’s just one face of poverty; not the only face.
I argue that the more quotidian face of poverty is probably the face of someone you already see: the woman who provides you with childcare; your company’s receptionist or assistant; the security guard in the lobby of your building; the woman who checks out your groceries.
You might not be poor if 4 crucial areas of your life’s needs are stable:
Economic well-being. Are you earning a living where all your basic needs can be met? Can you live on your wage? Do you have a ‘cushion’ of some sort?
Health Insurance. Does your employer provide them? Are you relatively confident you won’t have to lose your house if your appendix bursts?
Housing Affordability. Can you pay your rent or mortgage easily and without much stress? Can you afford to live where you live? Have you never had to choose between food or rent?
Education. Do you have a college degree? Do you have a professional degree? Have you graduated from high school? Are most of your friends and neighbors literate?
Before indulging in a superficial discussion of poverty ('poor people suck!'/'poor people are saints!') I think it's important to dispel a couple of assumptions:
* poor people are lazy welfare queens who don't work and
* poverty is about bad financial planning
Poverty is about a maelstrom of bad breaks: illiteracy, generational poverty, economic downturns, cuts in social services, no education, rising costs in the standard of living; lowering wage values, no access to health care. Access to work. In Illinois, one quarter of our work force lives below the federally defined 'poverty line.' These are people (most of them single moms) who work full time jobs; they work 40 hours/week just like you and I work. And yet, they're poor. And these are people who, every day, make crucial financial planning decisions – the thing is, they’re making these decisions with less money than you or I can even think of using to even live.
I was at a retreat for an organization for whom I sit on the Board and a woman made the point that, for most of us, we think of low wages as entry-level wages; we think "Oh, I made 28k when I was out of school for my first job! That's totally livable!" But for many of the working poor, 28k is not entry level. That's a life wage. That's a wage that won't change. Ever. No bonus. No signing bonus. No relocation bonus. No holiday bonus. Through children, illness, divorce, and death - that wage won't change.
Think $30k goes a long way? I earn a little over that amount in my new non profit gig. But I don’t have children, I have health insurance, an education and my rent kicks ass. (And I have a roommate who makes triple what I make and is willing to buy me a beer or a movie once in a while.)
But how far does that $30k go for a family of 4?
Or, maybe it’s $25k.
Or, maybe it’s $19k.
If you made $19k/year and had to support a family of four (or even three), what kinds of decisions would you make?
Yeah, Jesus said the poor will always be with us.
But that doesn’t mean their lives have to suck.