What is poverty?

The usual measure is economic. Those who don’t fall into that category tend to accept data reported by government agencies, but a recent article from the Indiana Capital Chronicle points out that Hoosiers with income inadequate to meet basic needs “is much higher and more extensive in Indiana than official counts would suggest — particularly among working, single mothers of color.”

The Overlooked and Undercounted report commissioned by the Indiana Community Action Poverty Institute analyzed how wages failed to keep pace even as expenses to families increased – namely food, shelter, health care, transportation and child care costs.

However, federal and state governments continue to use a measure that defines poverty based on one cost alone – food – and doesn’t account for increases in other categories.

This is hardly a surprise. I’ve previously posted about the ALICE research conducted by Indiana’s United Ways.

AlLICE is an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. ALICE households have income above the official federal poverty level, but below reality– the actual, basic cost of living. The first report, issued in 2014, was eye-opening. Researchers found that

  • More than one in three Hoosier households cannot afford the basics of housing, food, health care and transportation, despite working hard.
  • In Indiana, 37% of households live below the Alice threshold, with some 14% below the poverty level and another 23% above poverty but below the cost of living.
  • These families and individuals have jobs, and many do not qualify for social services or support.
  • The jobs they are filling are critically important to Hoosier communities. These are our child care workers, laborers, movers, home health aides, heavy truck drivers, store clerks, repair workers and office assistants—yet they are unsure if they’ll be able to put dinner on the table each night.
  • For families living on the edge, families struggling just to put that dinner on the table, saving money is a pipe dream. There is nothing left to save. So these families are vulnerable to any unexpected expense—a car repair, an uninsured illness, even an unexpectedly high utility bill can be enough to plunge them into debt or worse.

For obvious reasons, families falling into this category struggle to find the time and energy to participate in civil society, or to engage in the kinds of information-gathering necessary to create informed voters. Financial poverty is all too often so overwhelming a challenge that the other “riches” that most of us take for granted–social, civic, intellectual–are simply beyond reach.

The United Way report was updated in 2016 and again in 2018. It probably won’t surprise you that ALICE’s situation didn’t improve. In 2018, I wrote

As the researchers point out, traditional measures of poverty don’t capture the real picture–the number of people who are struggling financially because the actual cost of life’s necessities where they live is more than they earn.

Indiana, for example, has 2,530,581 households. Thirteen and a half percent of those households fall below the official poverty line–but another 25.2% fall between the poverty line and the ALICE threshold. That’s 38.7% of Hoosiers who face a constant, debilitating struggle for economic survival….

The stress experienced by impoverished and ALICE families isn’t just financial: struggling people live in poorer neighborhoods that are less safe and less healthy. They lack the time and resources that permit other citizens to participate in civic and political life–and as a result, their voices aren’t heard–or their needs considered– in most public policy debates.

As the ALICE reports have emphasized, ALICE folks are in large part the workers that we more privileged folks rely upon for a multitude of essential services. Evidently, we aren’t willing to pay a living wage to the people who provide those services. (There’s a parallel here with our unwillingness to pay taxes adequate to support the public services we demand.)

The irony is, we pay in other ways. As the ALICE reports and the  Business Journal series document, there are significant social costs to a system that leaves so many hard-working people behind.

Dismissing the struggle of ALICE families as a consequence of laziness or lack of ambition is a sign of moral obtuseness–when it isn’t intentionally self-serving. When you tell people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, you should probably check to see if they have any boots.

The Capital Chronicle found that Hoosier families struggling to make ends meet are “neither a small nor a marginal group, but rather represent a substantial proportion of households in the state”… More than one in four Indiana households lacks enough income to meet basic needs.

Meanwhile, we punish poverty. Effective state and local tax rates start at 11.4 percent for the poorest 20 percent of Americans, fall to 9.9 percent for the middle 20 percent, and then decline to 7.4 percent for the top 1 percent.

After all,  ALICE folks can’t afford lobbyists.