Are you poor? Socio economic levels are measured in a variety of ways and by various groups of people. Government statisticians, private research groups, entities interested in particular segments of society, and so forth. From country to country and culture to culture it can mean vastly different things to information gatherers. Sometimes the results are critical to assist people in dire need of help. Sometimes the results appeal to product marketing. Yet, what is “poverty” beyond the numbers assigned to that group? When do the “poor” slip into official “poverty” or are the two terms the same? Researchers do know millions are not counted at all. They fall between the cracks.
I grew up in a home that by today’s standards would be considered poor. It was after WWII and everyone lived like we did, mostly. We never reached middle class the entire time I lived at home. My dad died at 38 and only after my mom remarried many years later did she finally arrive at what we might call “middle class.” I was grown then and on my own.
Sadly, my stepdad has been in a nursing home for about eight years and by some standards today at age 86 mom might be considered poor—again. Not at a poverty level but poor. She doesn’t think so when she compares how she lives to the rest of the world. In fact, she feels comfortable compared to most of her previous life, the part before and after I was born. Her life didn’t change to a more comfortable level until she met and married my stepdad and they combined incomes. My stepdad has a pension and so she remains at home living somewhat independently, but modestly.
When raising my own kids as a divorced mom I had many hilarious conversations with other divorced moms. Our kids all thought we were poverty stricken because none of us single parents could match the consumption level of two-parent families. Designer jeans, trendy colorful watches, snazzy sneakers, and the like. Fortunately, there were no electronics nor cell phones in those days. Those items slowly crept into our lives around the time my kids were grown, thankfully. I didn’t own a home after the divorce and it was challenging to find rentals in nice neighborhoods that I could afford. But I did. I spent three-quarters of my income on housing to keep us safe. I didn’t think I was poor but most of my friends did which I didn’t learn until many years later. They have often told me how sorry they felt for us. I guess when you are living in “the moment” labels aren’t significant. I kept us housed and fed. I didn’t think then—and still don’t think—that’s poor. Statistics gatherers do, however, because my spending did not match the middle class norm. I was a statistic and didn’t know it!
We had limitations two-parent families didn’t have. We had normal home amenities, a modest car that got us from Point A to Point B, and pizza and a video every Friday night. Still, our disposable income was disposed of rapidly. I had a decent job and paid the bills. That isn’t poor but it isn’t the middle class dream. I went to night school for five years and that helped some with a promotion at work but it was too little too late and soon the kids were gone. By the time I started earning more the kids were on their own.
My dad had employment issues when I was growing up and he died young and it was hard on my mom so she worked in a cannery at night so she could be with me during the day time. My grandmother lived with us and she worked alternate shifts to cover time when my mom was gone. Due to employment depression my dad developed alcohol problems which is common. He dropped out of high school at 16 to join the Navy during World War II like many men in his era. Many veterans returning from war—then and now—are poorly educated, untrained, and almost unemployable. He eventually moved the family and bought a small business but it was sadly too late for his declining health and he passed away before he could realize his dream.
When dad found employment it didn’t last long but while it did our standard of living skyrocketed. I can pinpoint the times he was employed by memories of huge family dinners and long drives and picnics and new purchases for the family. But there were many more dim times without the skyrockets. I had no idea we were considered poor.
Poor families are defined by percentage of their consumption as applied to their income. I learned while researching this piece that technically “relative poverty” means having significantly less access to income and wealth than other members of society. That was us growing up and for many years for my own kids. I’m glad I didn’t know that then.
Poverty is also defined demographically and by race, by family status, age (seniors who lived relative comfy lives before retiring are often plunged into poverty because of housing and poor health care coverage), and other factors. Some folks slip from the middle class to poverty almost overnight with the loss of a job, divorce, illness, death of a primary family earner, and sometimes natural disasters. This happens in a healthy economy and is devastating in a poor economy.
The most important factors in determining if people are poor or living in poverty is whether or not they have adequate housing and most importantly adequate food (which is why I never thought I was poor because I always had adequate—albeit modest—housing and food). Some studies narrow that consideration to food only. Homeless people living in certain areas have access to food banks and kitchens. Some homeless people have poor access and some no access whatsoever. Some can’t access it if it’s staring them in the face due to mental health issues.
Today more than ever in history, including the “great depression,” we have the “working poor” who are homeless. They have menial jobs they go to each day which might pay for a few items but they live in shelters or on the street. This group often includes families.
An office I worked for adopted a room in a shelter many years ago. This shelter provided emergency housing for families who lost their homes via foreclosure, eviction, job loss, death of a wage earner, etc. As an adoptive “parent,” we provided goods and cash to the shelter to outfit the rooms with furniture, clothing for a variety of sizes and ages, mattresses, toiletries, diapers, blankets, and so forth. During the time the families stayed in these rooms at the shelter counselors worked with them to find permanent housing, employment, got the kids back in school, and generally counseled the entire family and attempted to get them back on their feet. Sometimes large families would occupy one small room. But they were happy to be there and off the streets. They had nutritious meals and they were safe. Many shelters can no longer manage the huge numbers that have come to them for help. Donations have evaporated along with jobs and housing.
Poverty can alter behavior. Poor nutrition can alter behavior. Being cold 24 hours a day can alter behavior. Being covered with lice and living with rats can alter behavior. Being sick can alter behavior. Being scared can alter behavior. Being poor can turn some to criminal acts. Being poor can turn some people violent. Being so poor school isn’t an option is a disaster waiting to happen.
We have 14 million unemployed who have lost everything. That number will soon grow with the estimated 2 million foreclosures expected in California alone in 2012 and the promise of jobs may be too late for some. In addition to the number of people entering poverty statistics, crime statistics, especially opportunistic thievery like home break-ins and muggings and drug use, will increase proportionately. Besides being sad, it’s downright scary.
B.P. and mortgage finance institutions and corporations moving abroad and/or outsourcing have destroyed huge parts of the world yet some people are mad because a few protesters have befouled public parks. That’s a disconnect that feeds the downward spiral of life as we know it (or knew it) in our country. Dr. King had the same issues with a few protesters but he didn’t give up the movement because of the actions of a few. He pressed on.
Trick or treat.
[Note: Here’s a link that says it far better than my feeble attempt.]