The U.S. Census Bureau recently released its updated poverty statistics for 2009. Not surprisingly, given the economic conditions, more people were considered to be impoverished, and the poverty rate saw a statistically-significant increase to 14.3 percent in 2009 from 13.2 percent in 2008. 43.6 million people were considered impoverished in the US in 2009, up from 39.8 million in 2008.
But poverty and the poverty rate are not absolute measures. They are relative measures, from the Census Bureau’s definition of poverty thresholds:
Although the poverty thresholds in some sense reflect families needs, they are intended for use as a statistical yardstick, not as a complete description of what people and families need to live.
So people can be impoverished according to the Census Bureau, yet still have enough in the way of life’s necessities.
Jesus famously said that the poor will always be with us. Conservative theologians interpret this to mean there will always be people relatively less well-off than others; that there’s nothing can be done about, so it should just be ignored. Liberal theologians consider it a lamentation more than an observation, saying Christ meant that we should always keep in our minds and hearts that there are those who have less than they need. Jesus didn’t bother to explain whether he meant there are always people living without enough to meet their needs, or whether there would always be those that have relatively less than others.
As an absolute measure, poverty means for me that the necessities of life are lacking. It means hunger–a diet of less than the roughly 2,000 daily calories needed to sustain the life of a human adult. By this measure, the US has almost never in its history had any significant numbers of impoverished people. Famine is something that has been so long outside our daily experience–from the very beginnings of our history–until we hardly have any context in which to place it.
Yet many millions in the world have died (and still are dying) of starvation in mankind’s history. Almost none of them, with some spectacular exceptions pointing to the remarkably robust stupidity of humans in all times and places, were living in the area now known as Canada and the US. The settlers trying to negotiate Donner Pass in Utah in the late nineteenth century come to mind as evidence that only people doing very stupid things have found the bounty of this land insufficient to sustain human life.
So I cast a gimlet eye towards poverty rates and statistics, particularly in light of the massive numbers of overweight and obese people in America. People living in real poverty are not obese, yet there is a remarkable overlap between who the Census Bureau considers the impoverished and who the Centers for Disease Control considers obese.
Indeed the poor will always be with us. As a relative measure. As an absolute measure, there have almost never been any poor in America. There are genuinely poor people in the world–people who barely get enough food to sustain life–and a great many that don’t. Extreme poverty and famine is usually the result of human stupidity rather than the harshness of the environments in which people live. China fed its people without much problem for two millenia until its Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward in the sixties condemned many millions to starvation. North Korea has experienced similar episodes of famine and starvation caused by its government’s fecklessness.
It’s stupidity in government leadership that causes most cases of absolute poverty. As bad as we sometimes think the US government’s leadership has historically been, we have always managed to feed not only ourselves, but a great many others. Ignore the US government’s poverty rates and levels. They are just subjective evaluations of relative measures. There is no true poverty in the United States.