Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Redefining Poverty

There is a problem of definitions in American politics.  Although not a new phenomenon, it is unfortunately one that is rarely discussed.  In many instances, challenging the accepted political definition of certain words leads to harsh, acerbic, and often unwarranted attacks by those who wish to defend a political definition for their own partisan uses.

In a recent report, the Heritage Foundation has courageously taken a stand against the definition of one of these words - "Poverty".  The abstract to the full report states the following:
For decades, the U.S. Census Bureau has reported that over 30 million Americans were living in “poverty,” but the bureau’s definition of poverty differs widely from that held by most Americans. In fact, other government surveys show that most of the persons whom the government defines as “in poverty” are not poor in any ordinary sense of the term. The overwhelming majority of the poor have air conditioning, cable TV, and a host of other modern amenities. They are well housed, have an adequate and reasonably steady supply of food, and have met their other basic needs, including medical care. Some poor Americans do experience significant hardships, including temporary food shortages or inadequate housing, but these individuals are a minority within the overall poverty population. Poverty remains an issue of serious social concern, but accurate information about that problem is essential in crafting wise public policy. Exaggeration and misinformation about poverty obscure the nature, extent, and causes of real material deprivation, thereby hampering the development of well-targeted, effective programs to reduce the problem.
The report continues by discussing the standard of living experienced by most "poor" Americans and how high these are, both in historical comparisons and vis-à-vis other countries.  It makes the key argument that there is a need to separate the truly destitute (eg. those that chronically lack shelter, food, or clothing) from those that are just defined as poor.  Due to limited resources, this expansive definition of poverty has not only injured the truly destitute but provided for those that are arguably not needy.

The U.S. Census Bureau, which determines the poverty thresholds, bases their calculation of these thresholds on a 1963 study that looked at the Department of Agriculture's low cost food plan.  Surprisingly, it was not designed to reflect the daily needs of an individual or family.  "...[They] did not develop the poverty thresholds as a standard budget... a list of goods and services that a family of a specified size and composition would need to live at a designated level of well being." 

While the Census Bureau's "poverty thresholds" are only used for statistical purposes, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) further complicates issues by setting forth "poverty guidelines" for administrative purposes.  While these are generally based on the Census Bureau's numbers they are modified for various programs (for instance scaled up by some percentage).  These guidelines are what are used in most welfare programs.

Arguably both the Census Bureau's and HHS's definitions are exceedingly arbitrary.  As the Heritage report empirically supports, far too many are able to achieve substantial luxuries while nevertheless being deemed poor by the government.

A secondary source of definitional challenge comes from politicians who often use the term "poverty" in a relative sense.  A relative definition of poverty signifies that poverty is determined by some distance from a measure of "middle-class" - for instance the median income. This necessarily implies that the problem of poverty can never be solved, unless all incomes become very narrowly distributed around a median income.  Taken to its logical conclusion, in some perverse world, poverty could easily be eradicated by evaporating the wealth of the richest in a country without any concomitant change in the position of the poorest. By thus diminishing the "wealth gap," relative poverty would no longer exist. Obviously such a precept is laughable - no state would be better off by removing wealth from society - but it nevertheless is the natural conclusion of a doctrine of relative poverty.  In reality, "relative poverty" is nothing but a euphemism for "income inequality."

Instead, poverty should be measured in relation to what a person needs to achieve certain necessities, such as food, shelter, and clothing. By using an such an absolute measure, poverty is defined by essential characteristics not an arbitrary statistical formulation or relative comparison. This is undoubtedly a more just definition of poverty and puts the state in a better position to provide resources to alleviate poverty. It also provides proponents of the welfare state with a better position from which to defend the need for state assistance in eradicating poverty.

[By claiming the American definition of poverty is wrong, one does not mean there are not people who truly are in need, nor that there are not those who are truly poor in America.  But it does imply that a changed definition can have significant implications for welfare policies.]

It is to be expected that vested interests will attempt to avoid any discussion, let alone any changes to the definition of poverty.  Expansive definitions of poverty allow numerous constituents (particularly but not exclusively of the Democrats) to gain benefits at the expense of others.  It is unlikely that recipients of handouts (whether low- or high-income) will be willingly to abdicate their lucrative positions.  This is unfortunate and unfair.  In such times of economic difficulty and budgetary disorder it is necessary to carefully study if our current definitions and resulting policies have stepped beyond what is appropriate and into the realm of social and economic largess.

Arguably, much of our welfare state has become a system of wealth redistribution rather than a social safety net.  This is not so much a critique of the concept of the welfare state but of its abuse to fulfill abstract notions of social justice.  As Heritage points out, our working definition of poverty has become one much more about "income 'inequality'" than one of need.  This has arguably caused the state to venture far outside of its appropriate bounds and has indubitably contributed to our expanding fiscal woes.  According to the authors of the study, "President Obama plans to make this situation worse by creating a new 'poverty' measure that deliberately severs all connection between 'poverty' and actual deprivation... giving the President public relations ammunition for his 'spread-the-wealth' agenda."  A redefinition of "poverty" to more accurately reflect individuals' needs may not only help alleviate America's budgetary problems but allow a misappropriation of the system to revert to its moral underpinnings.

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