Strapped: A Look at Poverty in America

Monday, March 17, 2014

poverty Camden Empty homes in Camden, New Jersey, October 11, 2012. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Camden is the most impoverished city in the U.S. with nearly 32,000 of residents living below the poverty line (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images/Getty)

For the first installment of our series Strapped: A Look at Poverty in America, Sasha Abramsky, author of The American Way of Poverty, and Chris Wimer, researcher at Columbia Universty's Population Research Center, discuss how poverty is defined, and how that definition has changed—or remained stagnant—over time. They’ll also talk about what living in poverty means for individuals, families, and children, the ways of addressing poverty, and the successes and failures of the war on poverty in the 50 years since it was launched.

The formula for measuring poverty was created about 50 years ago by a woman named Molly Orshansky, who was a research analyst at the Social Security Administration. She determined that a family of three or more typically spent one-third of its income on food, so she determined the cost of the minimum adequate diet for a family and multiplied that by three. The poverty threshold for a family of four in 1963 was $3,100 a year. Today it’s $23,850.

“Today most experts agree that it’s quite outdated and that it no longer captures what family’s need to get by,” said Wimer. A new, better way to measure poverty, he said, includes variations in the cost of living and key benefits, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps, unemployment. When those benefits are taken into account, you do see a reduction in poverty over time since the 1960s.

“We’ve gone through three or four decades where poverty has been allowed to fester and inequality has been allowed to fester and both of those problems have been allowed to grow,” Abramsky said. “We increasingly said if you’re poor, you’re poor because you did something wrong, or you’re poor because it’s your own fault, or you’re poor because you didn’t play by the rules. And it’s only in the last few years that we began looking again at poverty and at inequality as systemic crises that demand policy responses.”


Sasha Abramsky and Chris Wimer

Comments [7]

BigGuy from Forest Hills

NOTE: This monologue is reprinted from Androcles and the Lion; Overruled; Pygmalion. Bernard Shaw. New York: Brentano's, 1916.


DOOLITTLE: Don't say that, Governor. Don't look at it that way. What am I, Governors both? I ask you, what am I? I'm one of the undeserving poor: that's what I am. Think of what that means to a man. It means that he's up agen middle class morality all the time. If there's anything going, and I put in for a bit of it, it's always the same story: 'You're undeserving; so you can't have it.' But my needs is as great as the most deserving widow's that ever got money out of six different charities in one week for the death of the same husband. I don't need less than a deserving man: I need more. I don't eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more. I want a bit of amusement, cause I'm a thinking man. I want cheerfulness and a song and a band when I feel low. Well, they charge me just the same for everything as they charge the deserving. What is middle class morality? Just an excuse for never giving me anything. Therefore, I ask you, as two gentlemen, not to play that game on me. I'm playing straight with you. I ain't pretending to be deserving. I'm undeserving; and I mean to go on being undeserving. I like it; and that's the truth. Will you take advantage of a man's nature to do him out of the price of his own daughter what he's brought up and fed and clothed by the sweat of his brow until she's growed big enough to be interesting to you two gentlemen? Is five pounds unreasonable? I put it to you; and I leave it to you.

Mar. 17 2014 01:42 PM
BigGuy from Forest Hills

In some states, Republicans propose to eliminate all child labor laws and to bring back work houses as depicted in "David Copperfield" and "Oliver Twist". America's orphans could be gainfully employed in work houses. They would be well fed and better treated than juvenile delinquents currently imprisoned in for-profit prisons in Florida and Texas.

That's from Dickens. Another Republican proposal is from Swift. America's starving babies may be sold to be cooked for Thanksgiving Dinner, instead of turkey, without the parents or guardians of the babies being charged with having committed any criminal violations. We all know a fetus has a right to be born, but we also know the baby has no right to be kept healthy or to be fed, at least, not at the expense of the US taxpayer. Food stamp parasites like starving babies need to be stopped and/or punished. Allowing babies to be sold to be eaten for dinner accomplishes that objective.

Mar. 17 2014 01:37 PM
tom from astoria

Why doesn't the discussion open up to the wider question of poverty: How many Chinese, S. Korean, Mexican, Brazilian people have been lifted out of poverty thanks to our business leaders relocating there. We need to see the other half of the global equationYou tell half the story. Some time it is a zero sum game. Maybe then we would stop blaming the government and start pressuring the business class.

Mar. 17 2014 01:35 PM
The Truth from Becky

This again? NOTHING is going to change, it is almost the way "they" want it - two societies RICH and POOR! Gentrification, step 2.

Mar. 17 2014 01:22 PM

There is a very long history of distinquishing poverty from pauperism — poverty seen as misfortune; pauperism seen as a kind of freeloading choice. Americans have a long history of placing more of the the burden of poverty on the poor — blaming — than comparable countries in Europe. Tocqueville observed this 180 years ago.

Paul Ryan's comments are comical, given his own family history (as Timothy Egan noted in the Times).

Mar. 17 2014 01:20 PM

With regard to whether recessions lead to policy change, one question is what is causing what. The recession arguably prompted a swell of support for Democrats, allowing (maybe) more liberal policy than we would have seen under a Republican president and Congress. So did the recession lead to more progressive policy?

Mar. 17 2014 01:15 PM
joseph Cavalieri from east village

Are you able to correctly estimate how many people are "under the radar" working and not on the books?

Mar. 17 2014 01:15 PM

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