The first definition is absolute poverty — essentially, material destitution. Human beings need food, water and shelter, and if we can’t afford these things, life is pretty miserable. In the U.S., the federal government has poverty guidelines that are based on food consumption: If you make less than about three times the minimum amount people need to spend on food each year, you’re poor.
By this measure, a single adult living on $12,140 or less is considered poor as of 2018. For a family of four, the figure is $25,100. There is also a Supplemental Poverty Measure that includes not just food but clothing, shelter and utilities.
As hunger becomes less common, so using it as measure of poverty becomes less useful.But when your neighbors have several cars, several televisions and spacious homes, you feel poor. This is where the second measure — relative poverty — comes in. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development defines poverty this way: If you earn less than half of the median income, you’re poor.
it seems that a third definition of poverty is necessary — one that measures more than just material well-being but also takes into account economic growth. It’s called material security. Psychologist Abraham Maslow believed that safety ranked second only to food and shelter as a basic human need. Someone who has food and a roof over their head today, but doesn’t know whether they will tomorrow, should be considered poor.
Imagine a 55-year-old single woman with diabetes working a part-time job making close to minimum wage. Thanks to government assistance, her total income is $15,000 a year. But if she loses her job or has a medical emergency — both of which, as Matthew Desmond’s book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” illustrates, are sadly common — she will probably become homeless. That in turn will make it very hard to get a new job, or to pay for her future health-care needs. In short, her situation is very precarious.
As Maslow would predict, this kind of insecurity causes extreme stress. And this precariousness exists along several dimensions — housing, health care, income, the risk of violence — which makes it hard to capture in a single measure. Still, there are some existing measures that could be used to help create a composite picture of security-based poverty.
The risk of eviction can be roughly measured by the percentage of people’s incomes that they spend on shelter each month. As of 2015, 17 percent of Americans spent half or more of their incomes on rent.
A reasonable, common-sense definition of poverty should include not just an absolute measure of material deprivation and a relative gauge of a person’s situation compared to the rest of society. It should also strive to measure how secure people feel — in their homes, their health, and their jobs.