HICKS: Defining and understanding poverty in America

September 24, 2011

Poverty and hunger in America have been in the news in recent months. The economic conditions make this sadly expected, but I find the intense journalistic focus has done little to help us understand the issue. How much poverty we have and how bad it is remain elusive questions. The causes of poverty are better known.

According to the United Nations, there is no poverty in America. This is because—everywhere but America—poverty is defined by how much you consume, not how much you earn.

So, an American man who is homeless for a year but receives 10 donated meals a week, 100 nights in a shelter, one free medical exam, a flu shot and $1 a day panhandling is comfortably above the average consumption level of residents of India and sub-Saharan Africa. If he receives Medicaid, his standard of living jumps past the average Chinese citizen, along with about a half billion more Asians.

Clearly, the U.N. has a point, but satisfying its definition of poverty is a lamentably low bar for this great nation.

According to the official U.S. poverty statistics, we perpetually have 11 percent to 16 percent of the population living in poverty. This has not changed since the start of the country’s war on poverty in 1964 because our definition measures income inequality—a serious matter—instead of hunger or want.

A number of advocates for the poor claim that half of America’s children live with food insecurity, and some advocacy groups say one in five American kids goes hungry each year. While this seems plausible, serious and documented research informs us that obesity is a growing health risk closely linked to poverty. While it is possible to be both hungry and fat, the fix to this surely does not lie in more public assistance. We need something different—in both understanding and approach to the issue.

Poverty in America cannot be seriously addressed until we can develop a better metric. To do so, we need to structure a measure of poverty that assesses what each person consumes, not what he or she earns—the essence of a recent recommendation by the National Academy of Sciences. This is critical.

It is worth noting that, according to official statistics, the three most impoverished cities in Indiana are Bloomington, West Lafayette and Muncie. Income may be low in these communities, but they are not places where hunger and desperation loom (except after my evening class).

Measuring poverty well is not enough. We also have to realize that what we have done to remedy its grip is ineffective at best. The factors that keep families poor are well known: substance abuse, lack of education and teenage pregnancy. Sadly, poverty is not the result of economic problems, which would be a relatively easy fix. The real cause of poverty is embedded in bad decisions by teenagers, where earnest and effective remedies are few.•


Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.


Recent Articles by Mike Hicks

Comments powered by Disqus