A Nonpolitical Poverty Conversation

I recently read an article published by the Heritage Foundation (http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2011/09/understanding-poverty-in-the-united-states-surprising-facts-about-americas-poor) regarding poverty and came away with how subjective poverty is based upon the individual’s social lens. I read this article not only as a practitioner, but also as someone who has an academic interest in the subject matter as well.  Therefore, the following is my reaction to the information I read.

The term poverty as the authors’ uses it is subjective when the idea of what it means to be poor in this country is far more complex.  Simply put poverty in the U.S. can have negligible and legal consequences that do not exist in other countries.  Therefore, to look at poverty through the lens of the nightly news and a late night infomercial and determine what passes for acceptable poverty levels domestically is rather shortsighted, if not naïve.

It seems to me that the authors’ define poor simply in terms of access to goods and services.  However, at the very onset of the article they acknowledge that the cost of goods goes down considerably following a products introduction into the marketplace.  Therefore, cost and access are relative depending upon where we are in the products market cycle.

The authors identified a combination of at least 10 of the following items as an example of an improved lifestyle that contradicted what “liberals” define as poor.  As if to say if you own any of the 10 you are no longer poor, you simply lack comforts.  The list is as follows:

  • Microwave Oven
  • Air Conditioner
  • Car or Truck
  • VCR
  • DVD Player
  • Cable or Satellite TV
  • Cell Phone
  • Video Game
  • Personal Computer
  • Internet Service
  • Dishwasher
  • Stereo
  • Big Screen TV or LCD
  • Video Recorder

Going back to an earlier point depending on where the product is in its life cycle consumers can obtain the aforementioned at relatively inexpensive prices.  Case and point with a microwave oven.  You can purchase one for as low as $38.00 from Wal-Mart brand new.  Also, both a DVD Player and a VCR can be purchased for basically the same price with the later not available in some cases.

Also, you would be hard pressed to find any well meaning, social conscious advocate to consider items like cars and trucks, personal computers and internet service as examples of “luxury” items.

Depending on the city access to adequate transportation is absolutely vital in terms of functionality.  In Jacksonville, FL dependable transportation can be the difference between employability and being unemployed because of our lack of investment in an adequate public transportation system.  Furthermore, the suburbanization of job opportunities makes access to a car far more important to those who live in core communities than it ever has been in our country.   The lack of investment made in core communities regarding jobs and the infrastructure associated with jobs continues to be a leading indicator regarding generational poverty, which leads me to my next point and that being technology.

Technology or lack thereof can be a major factor in terms of lifting up or keeping people in generational poverty.  I would question if the authors have ever had to fill out any public assistance forms.  To merely apply for “help” requires you to have online access.  Given the Internet as an access point to even get services I would question if you could still consider a computer or the Internet as a “luxury” amenity.   In some cases it is actually a cheaper proposition to access services online because of the fees associated with talking to a live a person.  Therefore, creating a codependency on the part of poor people who cannot afford to be with or without ample technology.

Computer and Internet access is all-together a different story when it comes to children, particularly children from poverty stricken families.  Research is very clear regarding technology and child development, those who have access achieve and those who don’t simply fall behind.  Furthermore, given our country’s propensity for testing technology is simply a must have access.  In the State of FL starting this year certain aspects of the statewide assessment will be done solely online.  Can you imagine being a student who only has access to a computer in school or at the neighborhood library, who by the way have limited access and only allows you up to an hour per session?  This is not to even mention that here in Jacksonville the library and its hours are the 1st targets for cuts in at least the last 2 different mayor’s budget.

The final category in which I take particular issue with is the authors’ lack thereof “evidence” regarding poverty-induced malnutrition.  They suggest that overconsumption of calories is a major problem within the U.S. in general and not germane to poor communities.  As evidence the authors’ sited the nutriment intake of adult women in the upper middle class as resembling that of poor women and suggesting the same evidence was consistent across the board despite the ethnic or gender subset.  However, the one glaring issue that is overlooked is choice.  The lower subsets of people have very little choice based upon access.  In poorer communities’ access to healthier food options is limited at best and simply not available worst case creating terms like “food desert,” which mean an urban area in which it is difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food.  Therefore, foods that are high in calories become part of an unhealthy diet out of necessity rather than a life style choice.  All of this combined leads to run away medical bills, which can have a crippling effect even on the best-managed households.

What this article does is it makes the issue of poverty simply an issue of choice, particularly regarding marriage and work ethic.  I have coined this “urbanization of poverty,” which means if poor inner city people would simply make better choices socially, get married and get jobs their social and economic condition would change. This approach de-humanizes people based upon the idea that somehow poor people, particularly those from inner city communities’ somehow make poor decisions, don’t get married, have out of wedlock children as a result of some cultural norm and neither have the aptitude or attitude to work.  However, all of those statements are over generalizations and inaccurate regarding poor people.

Finally, what I do know as a practitioner first and an academician second is poverty is less about choice, although it does play a small part, but more about the environmental circumstances that create the conditions that lead to poverty.  And it is those environmental circumstances, which are created through the vessel of public policy that allows politicians and policy makers the ability to inflict their social will.

No one wakes up in the morning and decides that today is a great day to be poor.  Nor do they wake up and decide that I want to be educated in the worst schools, or eat the unhealthiest foods and find a job that’s the furthest away from my home.  However, this is the reality many poor people find themselves in yet the expectation is to somehow simply pull yourself up by your bootstraps and make it without any social safety nets.

That’s My Truth and I AM Sticking to it…


Dr. Irvin PeDro Cohen

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