The perception of poverty in the US

I recently read a piece by the The Heritage Foundation on poverty in the US. It’s titled “Air Conditioning, Cable TV, and an Xbox: What Is Poverty in the United States Today?” The piece begins like this…

The Heritage Foundation states that poverty is portrayed in media as “homeless families, people living in crumbling shacks, or lines of the downtrodden eating in soup kitchens”. I googled “america poverty” and here are the search results:

Indeed, the picture many of us have of poverty is extreme material deprivation. The Heritage Foundation claims that “the actual living conditions of America’s poor are far different from these images. According to the government’s own survey data, in 2005, the average household defined as poor by the government lived in a house or apartment equipped with air conditioning and cable TV. The family had a car (a third of the poor have two or more cars). For entertainment, the household had two color televisions, a DVD player, and a VCR. If there were children in the home (especially boys), the family had a game system, such as an Xbox or PlayStation. In the kitchen, the household had a microwave, refrigerator, and an oven and stove. Other household conveniences included a clothes washer, clothes dryer, ceiling fans, a cordless phone, and a coffee maker”. Woah—not the same poverty as Google’s images. The Heritage Foundation makes this argument:

I have a lot of issues with The Heritage Foundation’s piece. One of my major frustrations is that being poor doesn’t mean solely material deprivation. Their piece doesn’t talk about the emotional aspect of being marginalized in society, it didn’t talk about health care, or substance misuse, or mental health, or unequal opportunities. Aside from making my brain hurt from frustration, The Heritage Foundation’s piece got me thinking about where hunger relief organizations should channel their time and energy. Look at this graph:

First, I think this graph has a lot of weaknesses… Putting that reaction aside, I do agree with the underlying message that only a minority of those in poverty in the US are constantly hungry and totally dependent on food shelves. From my experience, most of HOPE’s clients aren’t materially deprived to the extremity as we perceive poverty to mean. That isn’t to say there are a handful of individuals that experience harsh poverty. To access HOPE’s food shelf, clients’ gross income must fall at or below 185% of the US Poverty Income Guidelines. Seems generous, yeah? The Heritage Foundation would probably say too generous.

If HOPE is serving those who aren’t super needy of food, is HOPE’s food access program unnecessary or un-meaningful, then? A (dark) thought surfaced: perhaps HOPE ought to limit its service users (i.e. change the income barrier from 185% of the US Poverty Income Guidelines to 100%) and focus its energy on better serving those who are “actually” materially deprived. Super shameful thought. But then I thought about how I was defining poverty. The definition of “poor” must extend beyond “inadequate amount of stuff”. Here are my thoughts on how poverty should be understood.

Meet Amartya Sen:

Against the dominant emphasis on hardship reflected by economic position, Sen created a different framework for thinking about poverty, known as the Capability Approach. Sen’s approach focuses on quality of life analyzed in terms of “functionings” and “capability”. “Functionings” are states of “being and doing”, such as being well-nourished, taking part in one’s community, or having loving relationships (Wells). Commodities, like nutrition and vaccines, are necessary to achieve functionings. “Capability” is the opportunity to achieve a certain combination of functionings, which allows for a self-defined “good life” (Wells). Poverty is the deprivation of capability. Therefore, the subjective experience is relevant to understanding poverty. Moving beyond the measure of wellbeing using command-over-resources or income-based measures allows for a more comprehensive understanding of the barriers societies have erected against certain groups (Haveman).

What HOPE strives to do isn’t just provide adequate quantity and quality of food, it’s to support people in achieving their self-defined “good life”. I appreciate HOPE’s “generous” income eligibility. I think HOPE’s income barrier should stay that way; it implies a trust that people won’t be greedy, can be cooperative, and acknowledgement that poverty is subjective and much more complex than just lacking of materials.

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