Women & Work

The Poverty Wars

LaurieFor all of time it seems that someone has been waging war on poverty. In literature, in history books, in most religions and in the writings of anyone even the least bit socially conscious, poverty and the war on its oppressors is a key theme. But when you get right down to it would we know actual poverty if we saw it? After all, we can’t wage war on something we can’t identify. If we do that we’re just a bunch of kids with invisible light sabers slashing at things that aren’t there and making weird noises.

So how do we identify our enemy? Let’s start with a definition. Poverty is defined as the state of not having enough. To be more precise our discussion is focusing on the not having enough money. But what is not enough?

In America most people would say that welfare recipient income level would count and I would agree. In order to qualify for government assistance in the United States an annual income of about $12,000 is required; make more than the and you’re on your own. Those in generous places would place the upper number of the poverty stricken at $20,000; a far cry from the number that earns assistance.

But let’s be even more generous. In my town of Jacksonville, Florida owning a car is imperative. Our public transportation totally sucks making it virtually unusable. Understand I lived in London for two years and never once drove a car. I love public transportation and I have tried to use it in Jax; not even remotely reasonable. Another necessity that would seem luxury is the internet. My daughters high school text books at her *free public school* are all on-line; any kid not having home access to the internet is totally screwed.

So for our more generous poverty outlook let’s draw the upper poverty line at $30,000. Now we have a new problem. Credibility. Are our numbers credible? Can a family actually live just above our poverty line? I mean, I know lots, and lots of people who say that families can if they choose wisely. Of course those same people spend our upper poverty line on entertainment every year. So I don’t think we’ll be trusting them. How about me then? I’m a reasonable globally minded activist, what do I think? I think our upper limit, generous as it may seem, is a might low. But how low?

To verify my numbers I went where you would go; the internet.

And I found precisely squat.

I found no current numbers.

I found no accepted, monetary definitions.

I didn’t even find any sources that would point to other sources that would in turn reference anyone that could tell me what the face of poverty looks like globally in the year 2011.

Which quite frankly pissed me off. I mean how can we possibly fight a battle against an enemy that can’t even be googled? Ridiculous.

So I took another tack.

To find out what actual poverty looks like I did my own research. I live in Jacksonville, Florida, USA. Our city has one of the lowest costs of livings in the entire country which means that real time research here should give a reasonable baseline for the rest of the country. What about your country? You’ll have to do that research on your own then plug your numbers into my theories; we’ll still be on the same track. Right now I’m going to set up our model.

Let’s start with the accepted concept of American Middle Class. Now this one was googlable. In the US you are considered middle class if you have an annual income between $25,000 and $100,000. If you live outside the US this may not get your attention. If you live anywhere, and I do mean anywhere in the US you may be making any number of faces right now.

Let me give you some numbers. No, not those kinds of numbers. If you want those kinds of numbers I’ve included them at the end so as not to numb any minds.

The first number is the amount of money it takes to feed a family of three (my family size) in the US. To get this number unbiased I asked my 15 year old daughter for help. I told her that I needed to research food prices and wanted her to give me any meal that we make at home as a starting point. After much, forehead scrunching and drooling (baby girl loves to eat) she gave me the perfect meal.

The meal is a cabbage based, sautéed veg, wrap that we’ve concocted over the last year. It’s perfect because our recipe makes enough for leftovers; the whole recipe will feed three for one whole day. It’s also perfect because there aren’t a lot of staple kind of foods in it so I could fairly just figure in the whole salt container; no nasty computations to figure how much of that salt container we actually used. Again, the actual numbers are at the bottom, but what I came up with as our food base was that one day of food for a family of three in our city cost $25.77.

$25.77 for one day’s food for a family of three seems reasonable. That makes one month $721.56 which makes one year $8658.72. Here’s where my face starts to twitch because I know from reality that the lowest cost of housing for my family of three is $750.00 a month; annual cost $9,000. Add just food and housing together for the year and you have $17,658.72. So according to the internet Middle Class America starts at $25,000 a year, which leaves a whopping $7,341.28 left to do everything after food and housing.

This is where those of you outside the US should have developed a slight twitch of your own.

At the very least you might be asking yourself where did ‘their’ numbers come from?

I have no idea. And to be honest I don’t actually care. What I do care about is reality. And in reality when I branch out the numbers a family of three needs no less than $60,960 a year to live here in Jax. Of course, life is survivable at a lower income rate. But only for a time.

To illustrate my point let us embark on a thought experiment. Yes, my lovelies we are about to jump into the deep end but not to worry, there are plenty of water wings for all.

First, let’s set the stage.

The setting of the experiment is a bathroom; nice in size, decorated as you wish, bathtub of a size that will allow you to lie flat out and completely submerged.

The variations of the experiment are as follows:

Control – full bathtub but you are able to get in and out as you choose; you are also able to vary the water level to your preference

Condition 1 – you must be in the bathtub in the prone position; water level only covers half of your body

Condition 2 – you must be in the bathtub in the prone position; water level covers all but your mouth and nose

Condition 3 – you must be in the bathtub in the prone position; water level completely covers you; you breathe through a standard drink straw

Now you can, and I do, use this experiment to represent any number of situations in a teaching scenario. Today we’ll be using it to get a better understanding of practical economics.

In our control group are the rich of the world. They have everything they need, lots of things they want and are only in danger when they behave irresponsibly by sledge hammering the water pipes and causing a flood.

Our Condition 1 group represents the comfortable people. This group is limited by the command that they lay prone but at the same time they have plenty of air and are allowed quite a bit of wiggle room.

Condition 2 represents the people that make just enough. They aren’t necessarily in danger of drowning but they must be constantly vigilant to keep from going under.

And then there’s Condition 3. The people in group 3 don’t have enough air coming in to begin with, resulting in systemic physiological breakdown. This break down is medically inevitable as *almost enough* oxygen can only keep a person alive for so long. Add situations that increase the need for oxygen, i.e., moving voluntary muscle groups, getting sick, having anxiety about not having enough air, etc. and the rapidity of the breakdown increases exponentially.

My Control is ‘their’ upper class; those making over $100,000 a year.

My Condition 1, those making between $60,960 and $100,000 per year.

For my Condition 2 I’ve taken out the luxuries of clothing, medical expenses, savings and the like to come up with the number $33,000. So my Condition 2 we’ll put between $33,000 and $60,960 per year.

That leaves Condition 3; those making less than $33,000 per year.

With our stage set let’s discover the hidden face of our enemy.

Notice that in the Condition 3 group the location of the bathroom isn’t mentioned.

That’s because it doesn’t matter.

The Condition 3 people may not be able to live in your neighborhood but chances are they work in your office, go to your schools and volunteer in the same soup lines you do.

The Condition 3 people are NOT lazy, shiftless, and deserving of their situations.

The lazy, shiftless and deserving of their stations are actually part of the control group. Their bathrooms are much less fancy to be sure, but like the rich their only dangers lie in their own choices.

The Condition 3 people in America can be found in any area of life; most likely you are better served by them than they are ever served themselves.

For example, a nursing assistant in a hospital in Jacksonville, Florida makes an income that tightly holds them hostage in Condition 3; yet every day they provide medical care that they themselves can’t even dream of affording.

Feeling like the enemy is much closer now?

Perhaps this information has made you wonder if it’s even possible to identify the impoverished anymore. And why should you bother? There are so many in need out there, why not start at the bottom? After all, when a poor nation anywhere in the world comes into contact with a tragedy the entire world jumps to attention. We text our money. We buy music that supports. We pack container after container with non-perishables and ship them off on our military vessels. We send volunteers. We band together. We make a difference.

All of that with very little effort on our part.

Our $10 per text is just another cup of fancy coffee for us; for them it’s a week’s worth of food.

Think of that.

$10 to make a genuine difference in the lives of people who really need it.

$10 by passing up a movie so that we can feel good about the fact that we’re making the world a better place.

$10 so that we can teach our children what it means to be *globally* concerned.

But what happens when the need is beyond $10?

What happens when the need isn’t easy?

What happens when the need is expressed by a people that live in a rich country that you don’t like to begin with?

What happens to your ‘global’ thinking then?

Global concern for poverty and all that, that implies cannot stop with the obvious. In point of fact, taking care of the obvious isn’t global at all; it’s merely international. Thinking globally requires a much, much greater level of dedication. And as bizarre as this may sound the most global thing any of us can do is to take care of our own homes first.

Now hang on a minute, I’m not talking about making sure your kids have the latest game system; I’m talking about taking care of your own community, your own neighborhood, those in your office, your school first.

And when I say take care of home first I don’t mean take care of them exclusively.

I know, it’s so much trickier than we all want it to be.

If we really intend to battle global poverty we must do all of the following and we must do them simultaneously:

Comprehensively take care of those with financial needs in our immediate communities
Comprehensively take care of those with financial needs in communities far, far, away
Comprehensively take care of ourselves and our own families so that we can care for others

Any imbalance in how we comprehensively care for the above groups and the global effectiveness breaks down.

What’s with all the ‘comprehensive-lies’?

Look at it this way. In our community it’s very common to give to the poor over the holidays, starting with our Thanksgiving feast. But suppose you’re an impoverished kid who would love to participate in a sport or an art. Starting in November the city becomes very interested in making sure you can celebrate the holidays like a normal person. You receive bags and bags of food and toys for Christmas. All of which make the month of holidays a very fat month. But does it change your life? Come January you’re still the kid with great talent who can’t participate in an activity. Come January you’re hungry again. Come January you wish you could have birthday presents or even a real birthday party. Come January you floss your sore tooth and wish that all of those food giving people would pay for your dental care all year instead; because even though you’re a kid, and kids never think about such things, you’d rather eat rice and beans all year and have healthy, straight teeth.

That kind of giving isn’t for the sake of the child, it’s for the sake of our egos; thus the comprehensive care. It’s only through comprehensive care that we’ll ever win this war.

So now that we’ve identified the magnitude of the poverty enemy and agreed to attack it from all fronts comprehensively where do we go from here? We have to identify those in actual need which is the biggest trick of all. Because identifying people with actual needs can only be done by becoming a world of relationships.

Absolutely everyone I know in America will use the phrase ‘can’t afford’ or ‘tough financial times’ at least a wazillion times a day in reference to their own financial situation. The reality is that these people live quite safely between our Control group and Condition 1. The only thing they can’t afford is inconvenience. The only tough financial times they’re enduring is having to cut back to the basic supersonic sports package with their satellite provider and suffer the humiliation of not having the mondo supersonic package that their *rich* neighbor does.

On the other side of the coin are the people that use the phrase ‘can’t afford’ because going to that movie will mean they can’t buy food that week. I have never met a Condition 3 person who uses the phrase ‘tough financial times’; they were poor before the down turn and they’ll most likely be poor when the recovery comes; any other pretenses are futile.

And how can you tell which kind of ‘I can’t afford’ you’re dealing with?


You get to know them. You invite them to your house. You accept invitations to theirs. You look at their lives respectfully. You refuse to force your preferences on them. You discuss their needs with them. You let them choose what’s best for their lives. You join with them to become a team to improve their Conditions. You continue the relationship long after the recovery so they know that they weren’t just a project to you; that you are in fact their friend.

But building relationships globally? Not even a challenge anymore. Every one of you reading this knows better than I what can be done via technology and global contacts. We live in an age when possibilities are almost literally infinite. Does that mean that you’ll never butt into a brick wall in your efforts? Of course not. We live in a world populated by jerks. It’s a fact of life that sometimes the jerks will win. But what if those of us who want to comprehensively destroy actual poverty the world over keep moving forward, keep identifying our new poverty realities, keep rescuing from all angles and continue building our team year by year? In time we may just get to the point when our little ‘Dumbledores Army’ is powerful enough to actually win the war on poverty. So what say you? Do we have an accord? 

The Numbers
FOOD per week 
cabbage                 $0.89
onion, large                 $1.49
16oz carrot                 $0.89
celery                             $1.89
16oz mushrooms     $3.69
10 pack large tortillas     $2.49
17 oz olive oil                 $4.99
26oz salt                 $0.67
black pepper w/grinder    $1.99
16oz bacon                 $4.59
soy sauce 15oz                 $2.19
TOTAL                  $25.77


SUNDRIES per week 

34oz dish detergent      $1.79
100 fl oz laundry soap      $6.99
furnace filters                  $4.99
ibuprofen 50                  $3.99
diphenhydramine      $3.99
conditioner 30oz x2      $3.18
shampoo 30oz                  $1.59
2 bars soap                  $3.29
toothpaste                  $2.29
mini-pads 50cnt      $4.79
tampons 36cnt                  $8.99
2.7oz deodorant      $2.93
6 rolls toilet paper      $5.19
15 3-gallon trash bags      $1.89
TOTAL                   $55.89

         Rent     $750.00
         Electric     $250.00
         Phones     $150.00
         Internet    $25.00
         Food    $721.56
         Sundries   $224.00
    TOTAL    $2,120.56

         Insurance    $150.00
         Gas    $240.00
         Maintenance    $50.00
         Annual Fees    $160.00
     TOTAL   $600.00

DEBTS:     $0.00
     TOTAL   $0.00

         Savings     $1,016.00
         401K     $101.60
         Taxes     $508.00
     TOTAL   $1,625.60

         Clothing     $75.00
         Haircuts    $100.00
         Medical Insurance   $400.00
         Medical Co-Pays    $50.00
         Dental Insurance   $50.00
         Dental Co-Pays    $5.00
         School Expenses   $25.00
         Birthdays/Christmas   $25.00
         Entertainment/Recreation  $25.00
  TOTAL   $755.00
  take home  $5,080.00
  total expenses  $5,101.16
  shortfall/excess  -$21.16
  Annual Income  $60,960.00

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