What does it mean to be poor?

One of the first posts on Enrichmentality asked ‘What does it mean to be rich?‘. Today I’d like to think about what it means to be poor, to live in ‘poverty’.

You might ask why I felt the need to write such a post. After all, being ‘poor’ and living in ‘poverty’ surely just means having little or no money, right? The dictionary agrees:

Poverty (noun): the state or condition of having little or no money, goods, or means of support; condition of being poor

Poor (adjective): having little or no money, goods, or other means of support

Of course, we have to ask what ‘little’ money, goods, or means of support means.

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Think about being ‘poor’ for a moment

What do you imagine when you hear phrases like ‘global poverty’ or ‘make poverty history’ or ‘the world’s poor’?

What about ‘21% of all children [in the US] live in families with incomes below the federal poverty threshold’ or ‘13.3% of all people [in Australia are] living below the internationally accepted poverty line’?

Something the dictionary definitions miss is the distinction between absolute and relative poverty.

Absolute poverty

‘Absolute’ poverty is defined ‘in terms of the minimal requirements necessary to afford minimal standards of food, clothing, health care and shelter’. The UN paper ‘Indicators of Poverty and Hunger’ uses the following eight indicators:

Indicators of Poverty and Hunger

  1. Food: Enough to sustain a Body Mass Index above 16. This measure is problematic, but a BMI of 16 is still considered underweight. The average American’s BMI, by comparison, is over 26 (overweight).
  2. Safe drinking water: Must be available less than 15 minutes’ walk away, not solely from rivers and ponds.
  3. Sanitation facilities: A toilet/latrine must be accessible in or near the home.
  4. Health: Serious illnesses and pregnancy must receive medical care.
  5. Shelter: A home, not made of dirt/mud/clay, with fewer than four people occupying each room.
  6. Education: Everyone must learn to read.
  7. Information: Access to news media, computers, or telephones at home.
  8. Access to services: Legal, social, and financial services not covered above.

Anyone lacking access to two or more of the above is considered in ‘absolute poverty’.

Yet, as Hagenaars and de Vos point out, the definition of ‘poverty’ and the official threshold is significantly higher in more developed countries.

Relative poverty

‘Relative poverty’ is defined ‘relative to others in a country; for example, below 60% of the median income of people in that country.’

According to the Relative Income Poverty Among Children in Rich Countries report, ‘Once economic development has progressed beyond a certain minimum level, the rub of the poverty problem… is not so much the effects of poverty in any absolute form but the effects of the contrast, daily perceived, between the lives of the poor and the lives of those around them.’

What does it mean to live below the poverty line?

It all depends on which ‘poverty line’ you mean.

Charles Long, author of How to Survive Without a Salary reflects that he and his family used to be shocked or embarrassed when they found out they lived below the ‘poverty line’ in the US (which was $13,360 in 1990 for a family of four).

Yet compare this to the international poverty line, roughly $1 a day at the time. (The World Bank has since adjusted it to US$1.90 per day in 2015. But that’s still only $693 a year). As Long argues, ‘the North American poverty line – high enough to include plumbing, TV and telephone as basic needs – would seem like a cruel joke to someone facing starvation’.

In case you think this is an overly macabre world-view, consider that as recently as 2005, Jessica Williams reported in 50 Facts that Should Change the World that more than 70% of the worlds’ population had never heard a dial tone. And yet, today, only three countries have fewer than 65 mobile phone connections per 100 people.

Does poverty exist?

Dorothy Rowe in The Real Meaning of Money argues that poverty doesn’t exist: ‘Actually, there’s no such thing as poverty. All we can see is people living in ways which we call poor’. These ways might include the indicators of absolute poverty. Or they may simply be symptoms of relative poverty. Lacking a certain brand of backpack for school that most of the other kids have. Going to the movies less often than average.

”Poverty’ is an abstract noun. A tool for thinking. I describe poverty as being ‘extensive’, when what I mean is that there are a great many people who own very little and therefore can be described as ‘poor’.’

But in highlighting the fact that poverty is an abstract noun, Rowe isn’t dismissing the problem. She says ‘I think there is too much poverty. Not everyone would agree with me. Some people see poverty as being inevitable, like rain.’

‘The trouble with using abstract nouns is that they provide a means of getting further and further away from reality. If we talk about people, some of whom are rich and some poor, we stay closer to what is actually happening.’

So why are some people poor?

…is the wrong question, according to the author of Progress, Johan Norburg. ‘We do not need an explanation for poverty, because that is the starting point for everybody. Poverty is what you have until you create wealth.’

It’s important to note that I believe Norburg is referring to humankind, not to individuals here. Some individuals, as we have explored before, are born into immense wealth without ever having to ‘create’ anything. But looking at the question of poverty and wealth from a societal perspective, it is true that poverty is the default position. Food and water must be found and prepared. Homes and hospitals and schools must be built. As Jane Jacobs says, poverty ‘has no causes. Only prosperity has causes’.

Poverty over time

One of the things travel has taught me is that what we view as ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ is relative not only to those around us. I’ve visited both countries in which I am richer and poorer than average. But poverty is also relative to the time period we happen to find ourselves in.

The castles of yesteryear may appear grand, but their facilities were horribly basic. Even the king did not have a flushing toilet, a telephone, a portable heater, or a television. No amount of money could buy you the sort of medical care we now have available.

I visited a museum earlier this week which covered medicine from the Neolithic period to the space race. And for a great deal of history, a doctor diagnosing your urine by smell and taste and bloodletting was your best bet. Or, if you couldn’t afford that, a whole lotta prayer.

Recent history

And we don’t even have to look that far back into history. What about your great grandparents, or even your grandparents?

My mother asked both of my grandmothers to write down the stories of their childhoods. We only received them after they had passed away, and one story in particular struck me. When a baby was born into the family, they had no special cot back then. The baby had a drawer for a bed. Today, I can only imagine that this would be considered a mark of extreme poverty in Australia. At the time, it seemed pretty usual.

Rowe reflects on the changes that occurred within her own lifetime: ‘I grew up in a home which had electric light, a gas cooker, an ice chest and a radio. No refrigerator or telephone, and if we wanted a hot bath we had to boil the water in the copper in the laundry and carry it in buckets to the bathroom. Most people in Australia lived in the same way, so we didn’t regard ourselves as poor. However, nowadays, if I were forced through a lack of money to live in the same way I would regard myself as being poor. I would know I was poor because I know about being not poor.’

What Rowe is referring to here is relative poverty. Feeling poor because you lack certain goods or amenities in comparison to others – not because you are starving or homeless.

What is the role of money in poverty?

The dictionary definitions of poverty highlight the role of money – or the lack thereof – in being poor. But the eight indicators of absolute poverty talk about basic necessities – food, water, shelter – without mention of money.

According to the authors of Think Like a Freak, poverty ‘is a symptom – of the absence of a workable economy built on credible political, social, and legal institutions. It’s hard to fix that even with planeloads of cash’. They point out that similarly, a lack of food is not usually the root cause of famine, quoting the economist Amartya Sen in Poverty and Famines:‘Starvation is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat… It is not the characteristic of there being not enough food to eat.’

Are you poor?

Rowe has a simple way to determine if you are poor: ‘you’re poor if you think you’re poor.’
But there are more ways to be wealthy and live an enriched life than zeroes in a bank account.

Who is richer?

Abby, who earns $38,400 per year, but cuts her own hair, mends and sometimes sews her own clothes, cooks most of her meals from scratch, using home-grown vegetables, lives in a location so that she can walk to work, borrows books from the library, and makes many of her own home cleaning supplies for very little cost?

Or Carrie, who got a raise and earns $48,400 per year, but spends $2,625 at the salon and on clothes each year, spends $3,680 more on eating out, lives in a suburb far from her job so she ‘needs’ to spend $9,264 on her car, spends around $1000 on entertainment, and another $1000 on household goods?

Abby might live what looks on the outside to be a ‘poor’ lifestyle. But she spends less time in traffic, uses fewer harsh chemicals, eats more fresh food, and spends more time outside. In addition, her skills translate to a huge saving each year. $17,529 in fact.

Carrie might live what looks to be a more glamorous lifestyle, and indeed, earns more. But even after adjusting for the $10k extra Carrie brings in, her lack of access to or use of skills that Abby employs puts her $7,529 behind. Abby can spend this money on other things, save or invest it. Essentially, her skills in other areas are valuable, even if she doesn’t earn money from them.

Being rich, and being poor, is about more than one kind of capital

I personally have lived happily on an income lower than the ‘poverty threshold’ of my country. But that was made easier by my access to other types of capital and skills, family and  government safety nets in case of catastrophe. Had I not benefited from neighbours who shared fruit and vegetables with us occasionally, family who taught me how to cook and mend and cut hair and do basic home repairs, things would have been tougher.

As I reflected during in my time in Fiji, if I were on a remote island, I’d prefer a crop of bananas or cassava to a few lumps of metal or bits of paper. But when it comes to medical care and education, there’s only so far bananas will take you.

Poverty is complex. When we concentrate only on the money part of the equation, without considering access to goods and services, we don’t just fail to fully understand poverty. We also sell ourselves short, by devaluing unpaid contributions to a household.

This doesn’t solve the dramatic income and wealth inequalities in society, which we’ll look at in the next post. But it does demonstrate that spending more money does not necessarily equal living a better life.

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Today’s featured image is of one of the medical displays at Paula Stradina Medicīnas Vēstures Museum in Riga, Latvia.

Do you agree that you are ‘poor’ if you feel ‘poor’? Let me know what you think in the comments!

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13 thoughts on “What does it mean to be poor?

    1. Thanks for your comment Nicole. Yes, there’s a lot to think about with this topic – so much, in fact, that I had to split my post into two! I’ll post the next part tomorrow 🙂 Thanks for stopping by.

  1. Totally agree if you feel poor you are poor. However we were poor as children and did go hungry many times, had no electricity and a hole in the bucket toilet! I had a poor mentality for a long time because of my poor childhood when really I was rich! (Relatively).

    Great podcast, thank you.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment Maria. I’m so glad you liked the podcast and found it resonated with you. It’s a tricky topic to tackle as everyone has different ideas of what they think ‘poor’ is, and I was a bit hesitant to post this, so your comment has made me very happy!

  2. As a very long time follower of allowing the elderly to live out their golden years in their
    home, I appreciate your post. Sadly, many individuals today don’t agree with me and recommend a nursing home for their aging loved ones.
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    Thanks again for your quality article.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I’m certainly in favour of people being able to receive the care they may need in order to stay in their homes as long as they wish. Of course, economic issues when it comes to modifying the home, etc. are just one part of the equation. Sometimes specialised care by professionals is needed and can only be found outside of the home, and for many families, the decision can be truly heartbreaking.
      Thanks for the tweet, and I hope you’ll come back and visit often!

  3. I loved this post! I read your blog often. You always have great stuff.
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    1. Thank you for your comment actress – fascinating name! I’m glad to hear you enjoyed the post, and thanks for sharing it with your followers 🙂

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