Tuesday, November 26, 2013


What IS official poverty in the United States?  After considerable digging, which mostly revealed how many people administering Social Security and other “help” programs know nothing at all about what they are administering, it appears that defining “poverty” comes from a set of guidelines that are themselves determined by poverty “thresholds” which were originally defined by the Department of Agriculture by determining the cost of four “market baskets” for diets of people on farms and off farms, ranging from poor to superior.  

At the time these four levels of diet were arbitrarily defined, there was no allowance for contemporary nutrition standards, nothing about ethnic differences, nor about diets for chronic diseases, nor about processed foods. Far more people at the time lived on farms because the post-WWII migration to the cities was still in early stages.  Farm crops were not so involved with chemicals or genetic tinkering, nor were they so industrialized.  There was as much concern about farm income as about the hunger of people.  There was no allowance for how food shopping is affected by long driving distances to market sources or ghettoes where food prices are artificially high for captive consumers.  The shift of the labor market from basic work to specialized and computer jobs had not happened yet.

Thresholds and guidelines are renegotiated constantly, so that a person can be moved in and out of categories because of politically desirable standards based on non-personal characteristics like the current national resentment of any kind of social safety net.  The same income might be on either side of the cut-off line: sometimes at 120%, sometimes at 90% of the poverty threshold.   http://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/progdesc/sspus/appenv.pdf

Federal Poverty Guidelines  (abridged):    “Some programs use the poverty guidelines as only one of several eligibility criteria, or apply a modification of the guidelines. For example, the eligibility level may be set at 130% or 185% of the guidelines rather than 100%. Other programs, although not using the guidelines as a criterion of individual eligibility, use them for the purpose of targeting assistance or services. The guidelines become effective on the date they are published in the Federal Register (unless an office administering a program using the guidelines specifies a different effective date for that particular program) and remain in effect until the next update is issued.”

No wonder that none of the multitude of people trying to answer questions on government hotlines or trying to sell me insurance had any idea what it meant that in 2011 I was moved from Level 4 to Level 1, or what the “levels” themselves meant.  Which "market basket" was a plunked into?  Is 4 the top or is 1 the top?

Poverty guidelines, or percentage multiples of them, are used as an eligibility criterion by a number of Federal programs, including the following:

1. Department of Health and Human Services
2. Community Services Block Grant
3. Head Start
4.  Low-Income Home Energy Assistance 
5.  Hill-Burton Uncompensated Services Program  (in connection with previous medical facilities construction and modernization assistance to hospitals or other health care facilities)
6. AIDS Drug Reimbursements (under Title II of the Ryan White Act)
7. Medicaid (The guidelines are used only for certain parts of Medicaid; however, the rest of the program — which probably still accounts for a majority of Medicaid eligibility determinations — does not use the poverty guidelines.)
8.  Department of Agriculture
9.  Food Stamps
10.  Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)
11.  National School Lunch Program School Breakfast Program
12.  Child and Adult Care Food Program Special Milk Program for Children
13.  Department of Energy Weatherization Assistance for Low-Income Persons
14.  Department of Labor
15.  Job Corps
16.  Migrant and Seasonal Farmworkers
17.  Native American Employment and Training Programs 
18.  Senior Community Service Employment Program Corporation for National Service
19.  Foster Grandparent Program Senior Companion Program
20.  Legal Services Corporation. Legal services for the poor

The following Federal programs do NOT use the poverty guide-lines in determining eligibility:

Aid to Families with Dependent Children and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families
Supplemental Security Income
Social Services Block Grant
Department of Housing and Urban Development’s means-tested housing assistance programs

The article at the following url is very enlightening.  It shows that the original thinking came out of the Great Depression and was then somewhat revised for the purpose of the Johnson War on Poverty.  http://www.ssa.gov/history/fisheronpoverty.html

The "generally accepted" standards of adequacy for food that Mollie Orshansky used in developing the original “thresholds” were the food plans prepared by the Department of Agriculture.   With family roots in the Ukraine, Oshansky (b. 1915 in the US) was one of six children who were raised in the Bronx.  This family information was sometimes used in an attempt to discredit her standards so the poverty level could be raised.  In fact, a West Wing television series plot aired November 21, 2001, was called “The Indians in the Lobby” and was based on a story by Allison Abner that addressed the issue.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pt0tvWSbirY  is a short clip of Abner in person.  She is now involved in the issue of child sex trafficking.  All these issues are inter-related.

So many aspects of contemporary society demand a global re-thinking.  There is a movement away from statistics and politically-controlled issues towards practicalities.  Recently I saw a list -- which would not be universal, but an excellent beginning -- of questions for someone trying to determine poverty levels:  

1.  Do you have a warm winter coat?
2.  Do you ever have to miss a meal or go to bed hungry?
3.  Must you choose between medicines and food?
4.  Can you easily get to a store for your necessities?
5.  Do you always have clean underwear?
6.  Is your sleeping arrangement comfortable and safe enough for eight hours of sleep?
7.  Are your shoes comfortable?
8.  Do you eat the school-provided foods?
9.  Are you ever too cold/too hot?
10.   Can you afford public transportation?

I would add things like:

Do you have a library card?
Do you own any books of your own?
Can you afford a pet?
Can you afford to go out for sports?  Or attend games?

This list is mostly for school children.  A list for older people might include things like whether there is enough money to join the local morning circle of coffee-drinkers or enough money for proper hair care.  

What people really need in order to have an endurable life is not always definable from one group to another.  For some, being gregarious is basic; for others, solitude is far more important.  Some wish to be around children, others want to be away from noise and mess.  The costs will differ.  Now, of course, we’re looking at a technological divide, which is a HUGE leap in the necessary assets, though libraries with computers and personal smart phones are taking up some slack, even in the Third World which is partly internal to the USA. 

I figure that if all else fails, I’ll get to Mexico somehow, look for a village with clean water, and never wear shoes again.  But what about the cats?

If you have Netflix, here's the code for the West Wing episode in question.

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