Redefining Poverty with the People who Live it Every Day
Earlier this month, the White House announced plans to redefine who qualifies as “poor” for the purpose of eligibility for social safety net programs. By moving from the federal poverty line to a consumption-based measurement, the administration claims the government will have a better sense of how people spend their money, and if they are living in poverty or not. The first main consequence of this policy change would be a drastic reduction of the number of people qualifying as “poor” and thus as eligible for federal programs – a change on paper with no basis in reality. In fact, as people will be removed from the list of those eligible for much-needed subsidies, politicians will trumpet success in fighting poverty while ordinary people’s lives will only get worse.
If there is hope to be found in this news it is that the way we define poverty can be changed.
In a recent multi-year participatory research project conducted by ATD Fourth World in partnership with Oxford University, we looked at the way poverty is understood by the people who live it every day. To do this, people in poverty worked alongside academics and social workers as co-researchers in every step of the process, from designing the study, to conducting peer groups, and analyzing the results.
The project’s final report, Pushed to the Bottom: the Experience of Poverty in the U.S., presents a nuanced portrait of poverty as a multidimensional phenomenon – one that requires multidimensional approaches if it is to be addressed. Poverty is the result of a process of subjugation which forces one part of society to live in disadvantaged areas where they lack access to basic resources, suffer ill health, struggle against work- and employment-related hardships, have their voice silenced or ignored, live in exclusion and isolation, and endure stigma and shame. These different aspects of poverty are intimately intertwined with one another. As a result, life in poverty is a struggle: not just a struggle to make ends meet, but a struggle against feelings of anger and shame as well as a struggle to resist and to overcome the injustice of poverty.
This understanding has direct implications for how policy is developed, including recent proposed changes with regards to work requirements for people receiving SNAP and Medicaid. People living in poverty know all too well that work, far from being a universal solution to the challenges of poverty, often creates new hardships that serve as a key dimension of poverty itself.
The problem is not whether people in poverty work or not, but rather that the work available to them rarely provides benefits or offers a living wage. Precarious work with unstable work hours, without benefits or opportunities for growth is all too common. Things like zero-hour work – contracts that tie wages to hours worked but do not guarantee a minimum number of hours in a given week – mean that workers are ineligible for many social programs because they are employed, yet they often cannot know even a day in advance if their job will bring in any actual income.
Working at the bottom of the economic ladder, people are easily replaced and as a result are often treated as if they are disposable, subjected to harsh working conditions and harassment, and threatened with being fired if they complain. These conditions create uncertainty and instability in the lives of the working poor.
Moreover, people living in poverty often do the most low-paying or dangerous jobs that nobody else wants to do, jeopardizing their health and causing premature physical damage to their bodies. These jobs rarely have a lasting positive impact on life trajectories or provide access to social or professional networks. Trapped in these jobs, workers cannot realize their full potential, progress in a career or in life, or help open new opportunities for their children or other relatives.
In the words of a home health aide in New York who participated in our research: “We only have access to the jobs that lie at the bottom of society.”
When you look at poverty from the perspective of those who live it every day – the real experts on poverty – ideas like the federal poverty line fall away into the background. In fact, throughout the research we conducted, financial wealth was never identified as a defining aspect of poverty. Instead, the key dynamic was what we have decided to call “subjugation.” “When you live in poverty,” an activist in Boston said, “you are always under somebody’s thumb.” That experience, what one activist in Oakland called being “constantly being pushed to the bottom,” by institutions, corporations, even the way you are treated and perceived by your neighbors, is what makes poverty so grueling in the U.S.
To suggest that people in poverty simply need to work to be deserving of support from the government is not just a misunderstanding of what life in poverty is like but an insult to the very idea of equal opportunity that once formed the basis of our society. No one should have to prove they work to be allowed to feed their family or see a doctor.
Of course, this administration’s attempts to re-define poverty have little to do with improving our understanding of poverty or helping to improve the lives of people who live it every day. If it were, then no doubt it would be accompanied by valuing the unrecognized work that so many people in poverty engage in, such as caring for children or elderly family members, or improving the conditions of people with paid employment. In fact, this policy is nothing more than a back-handed attempt to reduce the resources spent on the most vulnerable and marginalized in order to fund tax cuts for the better off.
Those of us who want to stand alongside people living in poverty would do well to learn from their insight in order to speak to their truths. This new research offers a way to deepen the impact of our work to overcome poverty, and to build a future without poverty, in true partnership with those who live it every day.
Maryann Broxton is co-director of ATD Fourth World’s US MAP project.