July 01, 2005

What Is Poverty?

by Susan Ann Silverstein

My grandmother was poor. She was an immigrant whose family fled to the United States seeking religious freedom and economic opportunity. She lived in an overcrowded tenement apartment in New York City. My father does not know how many children she gave birth to, as some died in childhood. She was unable to care for all of her children and some remained poor all their lives. Yet I remember my visits to her as full of life, her favorite wrestling shows on the television, her intellectual but not formally educated daughters yakking away, her solid furniture, and her feather bed. Her old age was not luxurious, but it was comfortable because of the safety net of benefits she received, which included Supplemental Security Income, Meals on Wheels, and public housing. My family members who never made it out of poverty suffered degradations and insecurity, but they never starved and always had a roof over their heads.

For twenty years, I was a legal services attorney. My clients were poor, and their lives were a constant stream of appointments and paperwork, notices and appeals, shifting requirements and confusing rules. They were evicted and had nowhere to go. In some of the rural areas I served, no dentists accepted Medicaid and few doctors provided regular healthcare for the impoverished. There was no public transportation system, and when their old cars broke down, they lost their jobs. I worked with many people who were homeless and hungry, physically hurting, and seemingly without hope. Yet the compassion of people within the social service system kept many afloat during hard times. Through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Housing programs, some of my clients were able to purchase homes or to move to clean, energy-efficient apartments.

I have not traveled much, but I understood poverty in a completely different way when visiting a small island in the Grenadines. We were traveling on a small boat, captained by a man from Grenada, who took us to visit a friend of his. From the beach where we landed, we walked up an untamed path to a small concrete structure. I thought it was unoccupied, abandoned. There was no furniture, and the bare floor was patterned with moving lines of ants. We were sitting on the floor, enjoying the shade and flicking off ants, when the family returned. Four people lived in this house, and they pulled up boxes from outside to use as seats. They offered us their kerosene stove to cook the pasta we had brought (along with the saucepan, spoons, and the pasta sauce). In a small clearing, we danced the night away accompanied by local beer and home-brewed reggae.

What is poverty, then?

Around the world millions go hungry and have no shelter. Others have a life of subsistence or live in conditions far worse than others around them. Is addressing poverty the same as creating economic justice? If no one ever again died of hunger, would we have a world of economic justice?

This issue of Human Rights focuses on issues of interest to the legal profession. As lawyers, we are specialists, looking to the laws we know best for redress and analysis. What shared definitions of poverty and economic justice do we have?

According to U.S. Census Bureau, almost 36 million people live below the poverty level in this country. This number is based on its annual poverty threshold, a measure developed in the 1960s by Mollie Orshansky. The poverty threshold is based on a minimum adequate diet, the USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan. In 2004, a family of four with two preschool children would have been allotted $13.93 per day to meet its nutrition needs. That same year the poverty threshold for a family of four was $19,157; for a person under sixty-five, it was $9,827; and for a person over sixty-five, it was $9,060. See www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/threshld/thresh04.html.

In the United States, poverty rates vary depending on race and geography. Blacks and Hispanics have poverty rates that greatly exceed the average, although the rates for these groups have decreased since the United States began measuring poverty. The poverty rate in central cities is almost twice the rate for the suburbs, with rural area poverty rates between the two extremes.

However, poverty is not just a paucity of income. The USDA estimates that 11.1 percent of American households suffered from food insecurity in 2002, with 3.5 percent experiencing not just insecurity but hunger. See www.ers.usda.gov/publications/fanrr35/fanrr35fm.pdf. Food insecurity is defined as “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.” Christine M. Olsen & David H. Holben, Position of the American Dietetic Association: Domestic Food and Nutrition Security, 102 ADA Reports 1840 (2002). People living in poverty also experience other hardships, such as the inability to pay for utilities and substandard or overcrowded living conditions, with most families experiencing multiple hardships at any given time. A typical household in poverty pays 64 percent of its income for housing, leaving little income left to cover other critical needs. See www.cbpp.org/12-20-04pov.htm.

The definitions of poverty used in the United States are meaningless in other countries. For example, the median annual income of $1,803 for a black adult in South Africa, or, for that matter, of $9,769 for a white South African, is still below the U.S. poverty threshold for those under sixty-five. In neighboring Botswana, 24 percent of the population lives on less than $1 per day.

Thus, some organizations, including UNICEF, have used measures of deprivation of seven basic needs—clean water, sanitation, shelter, education, information, food, and health—to determine rates of absolute poverty. In the poorest area of the world, sub-Saharan Africa, 62 percent of children live in absolute poverty and 82 percent are severely deprived of at least one basic need. In the developing world, the comparative rates are 34 percent and 57 percent. See www.bris.ac.uk/poverty/child%20poverty.html#abpov.

For most Americans, the poverty faced by those outside our developed world may be wholly unimaginable. Yet America itself is becoming more economically segregated as the class divides widen and income disparities are increasingly reflected in residential patterns. This segregation has implications for our future, as poor children who are economically segregated have poorer educational outcomes, and for public policy, as people in poverty increasingly become strangers to those in positions of influence and power.

In a time when poverty is widespread, it is important to maintain the social support systems that care for our most vulnerable people. This issue of Human Rights looks at impoverished people in America and various issues that are specific to their needs, including access to appropriate housing and fair housing rights. Legal problems affect those in poverty as well, so pro bono representation is as important as ever. Recent proposed reforms to Social Security will certainly affect the impoverished among us, so it is important to remember the plight of those less fortunate. Perhaps, as we read through this issue, we should remember Charles Dickens’s words: “If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.”

Susan Ann Silverstein

Susan Ann Silverstein is a senior attorney at AARP Foundation Litigation in Washington, D.C. She wishes to thank Kathy Savoy, her law clerk, who assisted in the preparation of this introduction.