Though the incredulous don’t necessarily realize it, they’re engaged in a vital methodological debate: What does it even mean these days to say that someone is poor?
Journalists and policy advocates often use the bottom 10 or 20 percent of income distribution as a quick and dirty proxy for “disadvantage.” This measure has the advantage of being extremely easy to calculate. But it is a mite imprecise. An academic of my acquaintance once noted that he spent years in a place where almost everyone was in the bottom quintile of income and many people were eligible for government benefits — but it was still pretty pleasant, given that it was graduate student housing at an Ivy League university.
Obviously, that’s not the sort of “poverty” we’re really worried about. If we abandon the easy measure, however, we plunge into deep water. Does poverty mean deprivation of the most basic material necessities, such as food, shelter and health care? The current federal poverty threshold was devised with this sort of poverty in mind, and it was a reasonable measure for the early 1960s, when a distressingly high percentage of the population still lived without adequate food, heat, clothing or weatherproof shelter.
By that measure, the War on Poverty has been a resounding success; though many families still live below the poverty line, the material conditions for most of them have been raised dramatically by a combination of economic and technological advancement, stricter building codes and non-cash benefits that aren’t counted as income in the poverty measures but still provide access to basics such as food and health care. Aside from a tiny fraction of street homeless, most Americans today have a roof that keeps the weather off their heads, enough food to keep their bodies from failing and enough clothing and fuel to stay reasonably warm throughout the winter. But in solving those problems, we’ve discovered that material adequacy simply isn’t enough for a decent life.
Conservatives are apt to point out all the things that economic progress has brought to the poor: refrigerators, cars, mobile phones. But no less a conservative authority than Adam Smith pointed out long ago that poverty is not an objective fact but a relative condition. “A linen shirt, for example,” he wrote, “is, strictly speaking, not a necessary of life. The Greeks and Romans lived, I suppose, very comfortably, though they had no linen. But in the present times . . . a creditable day-labourer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt, the want of which would be supposed to denote that disgraceful degree of poverty.”
As society progresses, one generation’s luxuries become another’s necessities, not merely because they indicate status but also because they are embedded deep in economic and social life. A person without a car in 1900 was average; a person without a mobile phone in 2000, fairly standard. But without those things today, most people have a hard time staying employed or conducting anything close to a normal social life.
The poor are still poor because, despite their material goods, they still lack public dignity and control over the most important facts of their lives, such as where they live and how their children are educated. By those measures, the War on Poverty is far from over; indeed, it has hardly begun.
Yet the poverty line and much of the poverty debate continue to focus on material resources. The left rails about “food insecurity,” a technical measure that doesn’t necessarily mean anyone in the household actually went hungry. The right retorts that obesity is a bigger problem for the poor than hunger. These debates are silly, irrelevant and a distraction from the real war on poverty, which must now be fought against residential segregation, inadequate schools and the other markers of modern disadvantage. Until those battles against poverty are won, nobody will be in any position to declare victory.