I’m so poor!

Ted Turner gives away a lot of money to charity. That’s fine. He says he wants to die with just enough to cover his funeral expenses. That’s also fine. Recently, he described himself as “almost to the edge of poverty. ”

Uh, no. He’s a millionaire instead of a billionaire. Oh, I know he was just kidding. But this is just one example of how people who’ve never been truly poor toss around the concept casually. It’s a bit like having a bad cold and saying, “Oh, it’s so terrible, I practically have cancer, ha ha!”

But it’s not just a matter of hurting the feelings of people who really are poor. It’s about us inundating ourselves with frivolous claims of poverty until we’re numb to real claims of it. That’s what happens when you describe yourself as “poor” because you can’t afford an iPhone and have to settle for a simpler cell phone, or because you can’t afford HBO in addition to regular cable.

Poor is an extremely relative term. For example, take two households of four people living on $19,000/year in Southern California. That’s solidly below the poverty line in the U.S. But one family has a small farm where they grow almost all their own food (and could certainly live on what they grow in a pinch), and they have zero debt – not even a mortgage. Another household on that income is living twenty miles away in San Diego, desperately trying to replace the two adult incomes lost in recession layoffs, with bills mounting for rent, transportation, food, laundry, etc. They don’t even have a balcony or a patch of grass for growing things. One of these households is far worse off than the other.

But then there are homeless people. And there are famines in other parts of the world. There are people dying of starvation. What exactly do we mean when we say “poor?”

Poverty isn’t simply an income level. It’s also about access to resources through bartering and direct labor – and through privilege. Poverty isn’t easy to quantify, so maybe we need to start using more specific terms. That’s why I use phrases like “working class” and “below middle class” to describe a class (my own) which isn’t enjoying financial security in proportion to its labors, but really doesn’t have much to complain about compared to some.


  1. Kirsten says

    Sounds like the difference between functional poverty and desperate poverty. The U.S. has tons of functional poverty. These people are alive, and will probably continue to be so till their 60’s or so. They have terrible housing, but they aren’t on the street. They eat, but it’s probably mainly from food banks or other charity. They may have some form of state or federal aid, but not enough to really “pull themselves together”. And for the most part, when you’re at this level you will probably need help to ever move up.

    Then you have the desperately impoverished. They have no real shelter, questionable access to food and water, and will probably be dead or permanently incarcerated long before natural old age even becomes a question. In the U.S. this is the homeless sector, and in plenty of other places something close to this is the norm. Some of these people may never be able to make it on their own (those homeless due to psychiatric disorders, for example). No matter what they do, it’s unlikely anyone higher on the social ladder will even want to look at them, much less give them a real chance to do better. They are the human trash as far as our efforts to really help them go.

    For some reason, it reminds me heavily of the immigration issues California and the other Mexico border states face. I think part of why immigration is such a hot issue is that we’re terrified these people who are jumping in illegally are just more human trash lured in by the promises of easy money. Never mind that there is no easy money. Anyone who has ever been at the low end of the payment spectrum can tell you that.

    Putting an evil face on immigrants circumvents the little pity we might have for groups of people who are looking for a place they really can earn a living, away from the terrors of the drug cartels and troubled politics. It lets us characterize them the same way we do the homeless. They become non-humans. And in turn we get to blame the drug wars on these non-humans and push the issue back to Mexico. Scape goats are lovely.

    • Jennifer Kesler says

      That’s awesome! Well worth the time it takes to watch it, for those who are used to getting their news in 20-second soundbyte form. :)

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