What is poverty? I think we all have a general idea, but when I sat down to write about poverty for Blog Action Day, I had to decide how best to define poverty. Poverty can be defined by absolute numbers – a poverty line is determined, and anyone below that is living in poverty. Poverty can also be defined as lack of basic human necessities, such as food, shelter, water, and clothing.
In the United States, the government defines poverty using a specific mathematical calculation, as detailed here. It’s an incredibly low number. In 2007, if I had made less than $10,787.00, I would be in poverty. $11,000, and I wouldn’t have qualified. Thankfully, this isn’t something I had to worry about, but a lot of families do. It is also important to note that this number isn’t weighted for different geographical areas. $1000 here in Washington, D.C. will buy significantly less than $1000 in the rural midwest, where I grew up.
While I don’t want to downplay the plight of those in the United States who are in poverty, I think that that they are the “luckiest” of those suffering from poverty, for lack of a better phrase. Why do I say that? Because of government programs. Because of shelters and free lunch programs at schools and food pantries and soup kitchens. Because of clean water. It’s a basic human need, and yet we are lucky that we can provide something so simple. Now, I’m not saying that people below the U.S. Poverty line are in any sort of good state. People are still suffering, which is why those of us with the means should take the time to donate money or supplies or time or whatever we can to help. We should do whatever we can to help bring all Americans out of poverty and make sure that every person, both children and adults, have a warm place to sleep and never have to go to bed hungry.
Poverty in America is a fascinating (and also very depressing) study being done by Penn State, and it’s absolutely worth the read.
I think the World Bank’s explanation of poverty really hammers it home.
“Poverty is hunger. Poverty is lack of shelter. Poverty is being sick and not being able to see a doctor. Poverty is not having access to school and not knowing how to read. Poverty is not having a job, is fear for the future, living one day at a time. Poverty is losing a child to illness brought about by unclean water. Poverty is powerlessness, lack of representation and freedom.”
Globally, the numbers are staggering. 50% of Sub-Saharan Africa lives in poverty. 40% of South Asia lives in poverty. To compare, in the United States, around 16% of the population lives below the poverty line (though almost 60% of Americans will spend at least one year below the poverty line at some point between the ages of 25 and 75).
But these numbers don’t tell the real story. Like I said above, whether or not you’re in poverty can depend on $1. And given the current state of the economy and rising food and fuel prices, more people are fighting to make ends meet. What do you choose when your option is to pay your rent or buy food to feed your children? How do you make that choice? And if you’re living in an area without clean water, how do you make the choice whether to risk dehydration or give your child potentially contaminated water that could also kill them.
These are choices that people shouldn’t have to make. But what do we do? We do what we can. We read. We get all the information. We research groups who are trying to make a difference and volunteer our time or give money or write letters to government officials. We hold fundraisers and we also do our best to raise awareness. We donate to local food drives, even if we can only spare a few items this time. We do what we can. And then we try to do more.
One of my favorite charities that works towards fighting poverty (and also supports many other causes) is CARE. But there are many out there. Please feel free to share your favorites here.