(I posted this blog in September but given the slow pace of economic recovery, thought it deserved a re-run)
The poverty level in the U.S. has risen for the fourth straight year. I don’t have a clear idea of what poverty means today. When do you reach that point where you say: “Oh, I’m at the poverty level. How did this happen?”
The conservative Heritage Foundation says living in poverty is better than many people imagine. (Possibly because none of the members has lived in poverty.) Due to housing and food subsidies, poverty doesn’t necessarily exclude having a television or two, a computer, internet service, a dishwasher or Nike sneakers. You might not be able to afford a personal trainer but you can probably get a free gym membership. Even if you’re not quite at the poverty level there are many handouts for people whose income is under a certain amount. You can receive help with your heating bill and your electric bill. You can get food stamps and could spend them on Lays salt and vinegar chips and Entenmann's powdered donuts if you wanted to.
I have some markers for what rich means. Rich is going into Citarella and throwing some Tuscan herbs into the cart without a thought even though they are 3.95 for .56 oz bringing the per pound price to $125. I don’t know if Citarella takes food stamps but I’d like to see the cashier’s face when someone hands them in. (Citarella is where I buy mesclun. It’s loose and has a good ratio of radicchio and frisée to baby beet greens, etc.)
Rich sometimes means being able to take a long hot shower any time it suits you. A long hot shower especially if the shower has a built in seat and is exclusively yours, is an activity that makes me feel financially healthy if not outright rich. Also keeping the house at 72 degrees in winter. Whenever anyone walks into my house in winter they say, “It feels good in here.” You bet it does.
Poverty level varies wildly depending on the city you live in. In New York City, you can be at the poverty level and make $100,000 a year not only because of the high rents and high food costs but because the figure messes with your good sense.
“Hey, mom, guess how much this job pays a year?”
“Wow, Bobby, that’s a lot.”
Bobby begins charging like an AlphaPower Battery and pretty soon his Visa bill is at $30,000 from eating out and taking trips and buying rounds of drinks and before you know it Bobby is in debt and having to call Suzy Orman’s show and ask her to approve any purchase.
There are no subsidies that dispel the psychological disgrace a father or mother might feel when the family slips into the poverty level. The Brookings Institution says that in spite of having certain amenities, poor families face severe challenges. They probably have, as the Department of Agriculture so romantically puts it “food insecurity.” That’s a phrase I would use for single males living alone but it turns out it’s a phrase the Agriculture Department has for poverty level citizens. I take back everything I’ve thought and said about the dullness of government bureaucrats. Somebody there had an existential thought:
“What shall we call it when people feel they won’t be able to buy the food they want?”
“Call it food insecurity.”
Again this doesn’t mean that you don’t have the staples or that you can compete in the poverty sweepstakes with a family from Bangladesh. It only means you have free-floating anxiety about your food supply. (Many middle-class families also have free-floating anxiety about food when tomatoes are 3.29 a pound.) The Department of Agriculture says 17.2 million households were defined as “food insecure” last year.
Even if you are living at the “poverty level” you are not destitute - a word you don’t hear much about. The dictionary defines destitute as: lacking the necessities of life and the synonyms are penniless, impoverished, insolvent, on the breadline. I have not seen any statistics for people who are destitute.
The truly forgotten when it comes to the empathy spotlight is the middle-class, the breadwinners who are just barely hanging in there. These families earn too much to qualify for subsidies and earn too little to avoid constant worry. They are “future insecure.” They have to make ends meet all on their own and there is no safety net.