When I was a teenager, one of my first real political discussions was about how many people in Africa lived below the poverty line, and how people, especially the federal government, had a duty to help.
I also had no idea how arbitrary the law making process was, and still is. To go with a youthful analogy, it is very much like when the winner of four games of foursquare in a row gets to make a rule. Once you get to three games, people start making suggestions, and upon winning the fourth you can decide to go with one of their suggestions, spite everyone, or compromise. I remember going with the spiteful route, but mostly because I got to make a rule all of twice in my foursquare career.
Administrative legislation goes the other way with its rule making process. It usually considers the most influential groups’ interests and tries to compromise on a way of doing things.
In the 1960′s a group of special interests, and probably a few congressmen, pointed out that there were poor people in the country and they needed taking care of. Some other congressmen thought that was a reasonable idea (would it be permitted today?) and set about figuring out exactly what it means to be poor, asking people what it means to be poor, and how to quantify it.
After that, they came up with their foursquare rule. This is exactly how we got the poverty line.
Whoever wrote the Wikipedia entry about it boiled the definition down pretty well:
“The poverty threshold, or poverty line, is the minimum level of income deemed necessary to achieve an adequate standard of living in a given country. In practice, like the definition of poverty, the official or common understanding of the poverty line is significantly higher in developed countries than in developing countries.”
This hit the nail on the head, and is more or less the way poor and not poor were judged in America.
The problem is that this definition, and the rules based upon it, does not begin to define what an adequate standard of living is, or how much money is needed to achieve it.
Good thing someone decided that that was worth considering.
The U.S. Census Bureau recently released its new method of computing poverty and found out that when they corrected for disposable income they were off by the number of “near poor” people there are in the U.S. by about 50 million:
“Perhaps the most startling differences between the old measure and the new involves data the government has not yet published, showing 51 million people with incomes less than 50 percent above the poverty line. That number of Americans is 76 percent higher than the official account, published in September. All told, that places 100 million people — one in three Americans — either in poverty or in the fretful zone just above it.” (NY Times)
The distinction here isn’t the classic poor versus rich that we are all so used to. It’s more can buy food on a regular basis versus can’t.
The people who can buy food are the ones with disposable income. However, let’s not be fooled by that. Like you, me, or seemingly anyone else that means that, while people are just able to afford food, clothes, mortgage payments/rent, etc. almost all of that “disposable” money is spoken for before it is ever received. More than ever, people are living pay check to pay check and they are finally being counted for how much money they have after expenses (including taxes), and includes support that people have received from social programs.
Also relevant to the discussion is how much the gap between rich and poor has begun to grow as only 17% of households are shown to have incomes over $94,000 after expenses, and households with incomes of $50,000 are on the cusp of poverty.
The growing number of poor and near poor signals a drastic need for a change.
If nothing more happens, it stands to reason that the number of “near poor” will continue to grow, and the number of poor will grow proportionately. The bottom line is, that if the Occupy Wall Street protesters needed something more concrete to put their finger on, this is it.
While about 70% of the Occupy protests are employed full-time, but taking some vacation time so they can find out what pepper spray tastes like, the rest of us have decided that we cannot simply take time from work to protest. We are stuck doing what we must to get by. This includes cutting back on family trips, buying used cars and second-hand (vintage, really) clothes, and not doing those things that we might.
Personally, the 100,000,000 or so Americans that fall in the poor and near poor groups are the people who I would like to benefit the most. I want them to know that they don’t need a class action lawsuit to get their overdraft fees back from the bank. I want them to know that just because it’s a landlord’s market they do not need to allow a corporate landlord to extort them for money. I want people to know that a misdemeanor arrest is not the end of the world.
Stay tuned to this site as I will be passing out more information with my posts and possibly putting up more ideas that I am working to make a reality so that legal help can be more widely accessible to all of us poor and near poor bastards.