Wednesday, June 25, 2014

What Does It Mean to Be "Poor" or "Broke?"

In the past week, this discussion has come up over and over.  Spurred on by the dueling poverty stories of Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden (in the last 15 years, not their childhood), many are taking a closer look at what people mean when they say "poor" or "broke."

In a related and strange statement, the former president's daughter blissfully confessed that she cared little for money.  Of course Chelsea Clinton makes $600,000 per year doing half the work of unpaid or low paid interns.  One does not need to care for money when the nest is permanently and opulently feathered.

Even the federal student loan people got in trouble for a tweet that seemed to minimize poverty. But what is it?

The federal government has a one size fits all measure of poverty.  It considers a family of four impoverished if it makes a little over $23,000 per year or less in every state outside of Alaska and Hawaii.  Cost of living, however, varies widely.  Earnings of $14,000 in West Virginia's most affluent area, Berkeley County, equals nearly $23,000 in Hartford, Connecticut, according to an online CNN Money cost of living adjuster.  Simply put, a dollar goes much farther in West Virginia than in Connecticut for a variety of reasons.

This shows that one cannot put a simple number on poverty, but doesn't explain what poverty actually is, or feels like.

Hillary Clinton described what many Americans occasionally experience regardless of income.  Her family's lifestyle ran their finances briefly into debt.  On one hand, they struggled with mortgages, tuition, and other financial commitments.  Fair enough, until you hear that these were multiple mortgages on multiple mansions.  They did not owe tuition to local state college, but to one of the most costly educational institutions in the world.

Paying bills when revenue dips causes stress and anxiety.  Having to sell a house to pay for bills could cause social embarrassment in their set.  The public, however, rightfully laughed at the Clintons' protestations of poverty.

The Census Bureau reported a few years ago that 30 million, or just under 10 percent, of Americans live in poverty.  They base this on income statistics instead of investigating actual conditions.  If being poor is defined as simply not making a lot of money, then the case gets rested.  Americans, however, assign a more stringent definition to the term poverty.

To most, poverty means real deprivation.  Does a family lack shelter?  Can they not pay for basic utilities? Do they not eat properly because of a lack of resources?  In most cases, the family may not be financially comfortable or secure, but they do eat consistently, they do have shelter, and they not only pay for utilities, but also vehicles (plural), cell phones,  and cable or satellite TV.

Submitted for your approval: if one regularly pays for satellite TV, alcohol, cigarettes, internet, and/or cell phones, one may not call oneself "poor."  If a family is starving and has all these things, it is not poor, but in sore need of re prioritizing.

Some institutions have a vested interest in inflating the poverty number.  More poverty means more money for the poor but also, more importantly, for bureaucrats and non profits that supposedly handle programs to help them. Examining true poverty does not help them expand their agencies, much less solve the real problems.

The more time spent on servicing the financially insecure as if they were poor, the more likely that the truly poor will escape notice.

Hillary and Chelsea Clinton's foray into the verbal forest (and we should not forget that Bill actually did know real poverty as a child) is great for poking fun.  It should, however, lead the country to discuss what poverty really is and examine the policies intended to address it.

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