What it means to be poor

March. 02, 2010

Are you poor if you earn enough money to buy food and keep a roof over your head, but not enough to pay for child care or essential prescription drugs? What about if you earn twice the official poverty rate, but, thanks to a high cost of living, are paying more than 50 percent of your income in rent? Should you be considered poor if you have to decide between food, rent and tuition?

The Obama administration today took the first steps toward creating an alternative means of defining poverty. In what has been called a “supplemental poverty measure” it will take into account not just the cost of food but also shelter, clothing, utilities and a cushion for unexpected expenses.

While it is a start in addressing the gross economic disparities in this nation, it will not replace the current measure of poverty, which has been used for nearly a half-century and measures cash income to determine eligibility for assistance programs. Instead it will provide another means by which to look at economic need. Under current guidelines, roughly 37 million people in this nation (13.2 percent)were living in poverty in 2008. That number would likely rise under the guidelines proposed by the Obama administration.

But, even if the new definition takes into account other living costs, it is hard to measure just what it means to be poor. Poverty means being forced to make tough choices between the necessities of life. It means making short-term choices out of desperation. And it means reduced options and fewer opportunities.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper