What is Poverty? Campaign Edition

It’s that time again. We are deluged with campaign news and candidate information, about how the incumbents have helped us and how the contenders hope to help us. One candidate claims he holds those crucial small-town values, like Robert Hurt, who castigates Tom Perriello’s negative ads by stating “we do things differently around here.” The other, Perriello, argues he will work hardest “to bring jobs to Virginia.” We have Jim Moran who is accused of siding with lobbyists and Patrick Murray who is calling on Congress to “help small businesses and not raise taxes and increase their costs.” And then there are the pictures: candidate Krystal Ball who’s recognized for pictures at a Halloween costume party years ago.

We are constantly bombarded by quasi-solutions, while we pay little attention to actual problems that plague the country and the state. Take poverty for example, a truly compelling issue of fundamental justice that is becoming more problematic every year. Do we really understand poverty?

The US Department of Health and Human Services provides what they call “poverty guidelines” to determine who can get federal aid for being classified “poor”. These guidelines consider cost of living measures, and classify a family of four as poor if they make less than $22,000. $22,000 for a family of four! That means if you make over $11 an hour working a full-time job, you would be disqualified from much federal aid.

In fact, many advocates and legislators have tried to reform the system throughout the years to consider other factors, such as medical expenses that tax those with low-income most. However, the takeaway message of this definition is that poverty is not just for the homeless and the unemployed; it incorporates hard-working families who are being paid minimum wage, and whose incomes are just too low to meet their family’s needs.

Even if the poverty guidelines reflect reality, according to the US Census Bureau, which uses similar factors to come up with what they call the “poverty threshold”, “In 2008, 39.8 million people in the United States or 13.2 percent of the population were living in poverty.” That’s more than the population of the entire state of California. In 2009, that number jumped to 14.3 percent, around 43 million Americans, or the total population of New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia combined. In fact, “the number of people in poverty in 2009 is the largest number in the 51 years for which poverty estimates are available.” (Find the Census Bureau report here)

Here at home, over 800,000 Virginians alone are officially considered poor, or the populations of Virginia Beach, Richmond and Hampton combined. How can we bear having 1 out of every 10 Virginians be poor? Unfathomably large numbers of our fellow Virginians live in unimaginably distressing conditions. And we consistently forget the poor, because we are constantly distracted by candidates who highlight, perhaps, non-essential concerns. 10 percent of Virginians were in poverty in 1989, just under 10 percent of Virginians are still in poverty today.

What’s amazing is that because our definitions of poverty are actually unrealistic, we aren’t even counting many people who are truly in need of assistance. If we used a more realistic measure, the levels of poverty would be far higher.

And our politicians keep telling us that they care about the common man, that they are just like regular Americans. Yet we must ask them, what are they going to do for our fellow Virginians, for those suffering from poverty, who get up tirelessly everyday, working one, two or even three shifts, and barely still scraping by? What in their policy will help our brothers and sisters who are truly in need?

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