In a study done in 2003 entitled A Sociological Analysis of Poverty in the United States, college student Sarah Gardner-Cox analyzed family structures and racial factors that might be associated with poverty. (http://www.millsaps.edu/socio/PDFs/gardnercox2004.pdf) Using data from the US Census Bureau, Gardner-Cox argued—as many other studies have also suggested—that there is a definite linkage between minority families and poverty. Statistics show Black and Hispanic family poverty to be much greater than that of white or Asian families. While only 8.1% of white or Asian families experienced poverty in 2001, 21.4% of blacks and 20.2% of Hispanics lived under the poverty line in this year. Furthermore, Gardner-Cox found distinctly persuasive statistics lending to the idea that the structure of the family (married-couple, single-father, or single-mother) is also strongly correlated to poverty. Mother-led households are distinctly more likely to experience poverty than the father-led or married couple counterparts. Perhaps the most interesting trend that Gardner-Cox’s analysis brings to light, is the fact that these differences in poverty have held pretty steady, even with the drastic declines in the overall poverty rate since the 1960s.
One question that this study inevitably raises is, how poverty is defined. In trying to fight poverty, it is first necessary to know what truly qualifies as poverty before it can be fought effectively. There are a few ways to define poverty. Absolute poverty is a food-based measurement that defines poverty as the “point at which a household’s income falls below the necessary level to purchase food to physically sustain its members.” (Conley, p. 599) This measure is calculated by dividing the cost of food by the percentage of income that goes to purchasing that food, and has been used to make the US poverty line since the 1960s. With such factors as inflation, a decrease in income spent on food, increase in income spent on housing, and other variations over time and place, many argue that this absolute measure is not very indicative of poverty. In addition, this method does not take into consideration the differences in cost of living from one area to another. The US Department of Health & Human Services set guidelines for poverty in the United States—a table of their standards for 2007 can be seen at (http://aspe.hhs.gov/POVERTY/07poverty.shtml)
While Alaska and Hawaii have different guidelines, amounting to a $500—1,000 difference for each individual, the other 48 states and D.C. are clumped into a single category. The problem arises when trying to compare people living in places like New York or California to those in Alabama or North Dakota—the cost of living in these areas is drastically different. Perhaps an income of $12,000 would be plenty for someone living in Mobile, Alabama, but that same income in San Francisco, California does not go nearly as far. On a larger scale, the same principles can be applied to definitions of poverty in different countries. Poverty is generally thought to be associated with the inability to meet the basic needs of life; however, the definition of these “basic needs” is socially constructed and, therefore, varies widely across borders, both domestic and international. (Absolute Poverty v. Relative Poverty: The Search for Survival, Volkov & Deneburg)
Many people, therefore, may turn to relative poverty for what they may consider a more accurate measure of poverty. The definition of poverty in this case is based on “a percentage of the median income” in a given area. (Conley, p. 603) The question then is where are the lines to be drawn in considering given “locations?” Should poverty be relative to state? City? County? Neighborhood? While the “relative poverty” system at least tries to take variations in location into account, it still experiences many problems such as defining the boundaries of relativity. Furthermore, relative poverty falls under criticism for being an income-based system of measurement. As people with the same income can actually be in very different circumstances in terms of debt and savings, some argue that net worth (a person’s total assets minus their total debts) is much more indicative of poverty.
The question that arises in considering all these different measurements of poverty is, can there ever really be an absolute measurement of poverty? Yes, distinctions can be made based on location, but how do you define what count as necessities? Food and shelter seem obvious conditions, but what about phones, cars, computers, or the Internet? Relative needs are socially constructed, regionally distinct, and perpetually changing, and it is difficult to decide on a single definition that will prove useful for any significant amount of time.
In his article Rethinking the Sociological Measurement of Poverty, David Brady presents us with five criteria to take into account when measuring poverty. Brady writes,
“First, scholars should use measures of poverty that effectively gauge comparative historical variation. Second, analysts should measure poverty as relative rather than absolute. Third, poverty should be conceptualized as social exclusion. Fourth, poverty indices should measure the depth and inequality among the poor. Finally, analysts should incorporate taxes, transfers, and state benefits when calculating household resources.”
Do you agree with Brady’s list of five criteria? If not, which one(s) would you remove? Would you add any criteria? In conclusion, is there any absolute measure of poverty or is there a “relativity” factor inherent in even the most absolute definitions?
For further readings on this topic, see: