Sunday, September 19, 2010


I just heard on NPR that one in seven US adults lives in poverty, and for kids the figure is even higher: 1/6! Which begs the question: what is poverty? If it is so common, is the word or the definition meaningless, much like obesity.

It used to be that when a person was referred to as obese, one imagined a several hundred pound person who has difficulty ambulating. Then we learned that so many of us are obese. A 5'4" person weighing just 180 pounds is considered obese. Maybe we need a new word for our old concept. And maybe this is also true for poverty.

When I think of poverty, I think of someone who is hungry sometimes. Really hungry. And who owns only a few items of clothes. This person probably can't afford to heat their home sufficiently in the winter. And they certainly don't warrant the increase in workers for the holiday season, since they don't have superfluous funds for gifts.

If poverty is so common, and on the rise, who are all the people populating the steady stream flowing out of Wal-mart with buggies packed to the brim?

In the United States, poverty is defined by household income (and household size). Period. No matter where you live and the cost of living. For a family of 3, it is $18,310. It goes up to $22,000 for a family of four.

We live below the poverty level, and while we are just one voice, I want to assure you that all is good at poverty-stricken Barefoot Farm. We all ate today - three squares. We had beans and potatoes (grown on the farm) for dinner. Sometimes we eat like kings and queens, enjoying exotic things like grapes and orange juice (in February).

Maybe you're thinking we aren't the norm, living without airconditioning (when it's still in the 90s in September), and driving beater cars that cost maybe $1000. What about those other folks in poverty who want decent cars and airconditioning? And a blackberry. And satellite TV. On a flat screen. And new clothes, not new-to-you clothes. And all those other normal everyday things.

The poverty level might be meaningful, say, in Boston where rent is at least triple what it is here. But in Oklahoma, one can live comfortably. Maybe our standards of comfort are off. In this time of obviously finite resources, why do we expect so much? A roof, heat, health, food, and we're good. Yet our government offers assistance to those in povery, and above it. If one's household income is 185% of the poverty level (over 33,000 for a family my size!), s/he qualifies for a lot of free financial help with food, electricity, phone, and more. So now poverty is nearly twice the povery level?

If we weren't taught to want so much, maybe we'd feel grateful for all we have, rather than slighted and disgruntled. By world standards, US poverty looks really good.

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