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The US Economic System Doesn’t Just Allow Poverty — It Generates Poverty

We need to accurately define poverty. But most of all, we need to end it.

People participate in a march for the Poor People's Campaign in the Financial District on March 18, 2019, in New York City.

Janine Jackson: Washington Post factchecking seems to be weaponized in favor of the status quo. The paper faulted Bernie Sanders’ statement that, “Three people in this country own more wealth than the bottom half of America” as “apples to oranges,” because people in the bottom half have no wealth at all. So when the paper took up Joe Biden’s statement that “we have almost half the people in the United States in poverty,” you couldn’t be surprised that the Washington Post ruling was that he was “flat-out wrong,” three Pinocchios’ worth of wrong, even irresponsibly wrong.

Data matters, certainly; it’s important to define problems accurately. But when it comes to poverty, corporate media’s narrow understanding of data doesn’t necessarily reflect the lived reality of many Americans, who feel themselves to be in crisis, even if there are indicators that suggest to others they are not. And what would it mean to take some of the energy devoted to defining poverty — including batting away concerns as exaggerated — and dedicate that energy to ending poverty?

Shailly Gupta Barnes is the policy director at the Kairos Center. She coordinated and edited the report The Souls of Poor Folk: Auditing America for the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, working with the Institute for Policy Studies. And she co-wrote and edited a report this summer called Poor People’s Moral Budget: Everybody Has the Right to Live. She joins us now by phone from a taxi in New York City. Welcome to CounterSpin, Shailly Gupta Barnes.

Shailly Gupta Barnes: Thank you, Janine. Happy to be here.

Can we talk a bit first about this conversation around measurement? Like I say, it’s important to define problems as accurately as possible. But if different people work with different criteria, they can talk past each other. How do you define poverty in your work? And how does your definition fit with, or sit alongside, what we get from the Census Bureau, for example?

So we have, over many years, worked to understand and broaden the definition of poverty, using, in fact, census data. We just broaden the categorization of what’s considered poor. So the census data usually relies on normal poverty measurements that we hear about, the official poverty measure, which mainly looks at income, what a household brings in in terms of income, what they’ve earned. But it doesn’t really correspond to the cost of living. And that measure itself was developed in the 1960s, based on food and income expense data from the 1950s. And so by many respects, it’s really out of date; it just doesn’t correspond to how we spend our resources anymore, and even less to what resources we have access to anymore.

And the Census Bureau itself has acknowledged this, and put out, in addition to the official poverty measure, a supplemental poverty measure. And that supplemental poverty measure looks at household income, but it also looks at government support programs, for instance what you might get in terms of food stamps, or the earned income tax credit. And, importantly, it also considers really critical out-of-pocket expenses that most of us have for food, clothing, housing, utilities. And it even takes into account differences in the cost of living between urban and rural cities across the country. So it has a different range of measures, say, if you’re in Atlanta, Georgia, or if you’re in Lowndes County, Alabama, versus New York City. So all of these would have slightly different measures. As a measurement itself, it’s slightly broader, the supplemental poverty measure. So we often start with that. But that isn’t where we stop.

The supplemental poverty measure has a threshold for poverty, and it’s approximately $24,000 for a four-person household. But we actually look at who’s living just above that threshold, too, because we know that over the course of the year, any emergency, whether it’s a traffic ticket, a layoff, a health emergency for yourself, for a family member, for a friend, or someone else has a crisis in their lives, and you become a part of that crisis and helping them resolve it — we know that over the course of the year, anything like that could happen. And even if you are living just above that threshold, you could be pushed under very quickly, that precarity that so many people are living in.

We look at basically anyone who’s below twice that poverty threshold, so for a family of four, that’s less than $50,000 a year. And according to that number, it’s not just 40 million people who are poor, we’re looking at 140 million: There are another 100 million people who fall above that threshold, who any emergency can push them under and into being technically poor, even though every day of their lives is lived in precarity, economic precarity.

Technically, and this is where Vice President Biden got in trouble, he said that the 140 million was poor, we’ve always said it’s “poor and low-income,” just using the definition that’s provided to us, but there may be some truth in saying that anyone who is living below that 200% mark is, in fact, not just economically precarious, but really struggling to meet their needs. So maybe it’s time that we actually broaden our definition and what we mean by “poor.”

It almost seems like a bad joke to me to say, “You’re one hospital stay away from official poverty, but don’t you dare say you’re poor, because you’re not yet.” All the fiddling around labels feels like a deflection rather than an earnest effort to get at the problem.

And I want to just say about media: Media often promote and/or fail to challenge a kind of lifeboat or zero-sum mentality. When we start talking about responses, when you talk about providing every human being a decent life, the attitude is that “we can’t afford it.” And then, besides not answering who the “we” is, or how we can “afford” millions of people in precarity, it’s just economically inaccurate, isn’t it, to say that the United States can’t afford to lift people up?

That’s absolutely right. There are abundant resources available in this country, and that could be made more accessible, more available, to address poverty and all the systemic injustices that are wrapped up within poverty, if there was a political will to do that. If we were serious about meeting the needs, not just of the 140 million who are poor and struggling, but even beyond that: Every single one of us needs healthcare and decent housing and good education and clean water. And if we were to make it possible for every single person to have that, it would mean having to make some choices. But all of that is possible.

In our Moral Budget that the Poor People’s Campaign released this summer, we found that if we decided to cut military spending, to have fair taxes, and invest in healthcare, invest in good jobs, invest in housing, invest in education — every dollar that’s spent on education produces at least $7 more, in the long run — if we chose to make these political investments of our resources and the wealth in this country, we could not just end poverty, we could bring this country’s economy back, and we could repair the damage that’s been done to our society that’s really fractured us. We’re suffering a moral decay in many ways. When we’re, like we’re saying, pitted against each other, we’re not allowed to see the humanity in each other and develop thriving communities. We could build our country and our society back, could bring our country back to what we understand it to be, if we moved in this direction. And it is possible

Poor people, given more resources, put that into the economy, you know; they don’t funnel it offshore. In other words, helping poor people means helping the economy. And that’s often an artificial divide that we see corporate media put before us: the idea that if we were able to lift up the people who are struggling, that somehow that would take something from other people.

And part of the import of the Poor People’s Campaign is that analysis that puts forward that that conflict is a manufactured conflict.

That’s absolutely right. I think there are two ways that we often see this come out, and even some media outlets that may want to be sympathetic to the situation of the poor, but the stories still make it seem that the poor are victims that we have to take care of, and not that there’s a social responsibility and a benefit to us all being lifted up.

I think the two ways are, one, this narrative of the makers and the takers, right. So this idea that anyone who’s poor or not able to thrive in this economy are taking away from it, rather than contributing to it every day: taking care of our children and our elderly, building our roads and our infrastructure, and maintaining our schools and public support system.

And the other way, I think, that this emerges is this idea that poverty is actually the fault of the poor.


That if you’re struggling, you’ve done something wrong, rather than addressing the systemic and structural injustices that have put millions of people, including many of us, in that situation, and that have developed over decades.

Greg Kaufmann, who reports on poverty for The Nation, wrote recently about the hope that he finds in the Poor People’s Campaign, because it’s a movement, first of all, but also because of the “refusal to silo issues.” Because even though fights seemed more winnable if you just focus on housing or healthcare, it means you’re not engaging the problem at its core, which is a system, as you’ve just referred to, a system that doesn’t just allow poverty but generates poverty. And I want you just to address, if you could, how important that interconnectedness of issues is, and how the vision of the Poor People’s Campaign, integrates those things.

What the Poor People’s Campaign does is look at five interlocking injustices. We look at systemic racism, poverty, militarism — which were the three injustices that the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, organized and envisioned by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and many others 50 years ago, were focused on — and we’ve added to those: ecological devastation, which we cannot address ecological devastation unless we’re also talking about poverty, systemic racism and militarism.


But then also a distorted moral narrative that, like I was saying, blames the poor for being poor, but also relies on this extreme religious nationalism, to keep all these things separated and somehow say, “This is the inevitable conclusion of whatever we’ve done before.”

We’ve tied all these together. And in part, it’s both reflection that these injustices tie together, but also that the lives of everybody, and not just the poor, are all of these things. We cannot separate our need for housing from our need for healthcare. We can’t separate our need for healthcare from our need to be able to participate in a democratic society. And we can’t separate that need from an ability to have thriving and peaceful communities, and not be worried about whether our children are going to be taken away, or whether our housing is going to be taken away, or whether our school system is going to be closed because of budget cuts, or an emergency financial manager coming in and deciding that the school district needs to be closed.

And so we’ve seen repeatedly across the country, in any crisis that’s broken out, the interrelationship between all of these, and how these have developed and become enmeshed over decades, and how it’s only the response of those most impacted in these communities coming together and fighting for their needs that has ever changed things.

As hard as these times are, I do see people ready for this big vision, this interconnection of issues for systemic change. And it’s not just that the status quo is not tenable; it’s the future can actually be better. It doesn’t have to be what we can salvage. It can actually be better.

Yes. I think part of what this campaign, and what we all have to be fighting for, is not just imagining but seeing the real possibility that we can change things if we actually do come together, around all the things that we need.

Part of what’s made that so difficult is that the issues are siloed, but also our work is siloed. We’re often competing against each other for media attention, for resources, for capacity, and if we instead understand that we must come together and build a real movement, then really, we’re going to break through those limitations.

And one of the key slogans we always say is, “Forward together, not one step back!” Not one step back on democracy, not one step back on racism, not one step back on poverty, not one step back on any of the things we need. We have to say, “We are all in and no one is out.”

We’ve been speaking with Shailly Gupta Barnes from the Kairos Center; they’re online at Learn more about The Souls of Poor Folk and the Moral Agenda at Shailly Gupta Barnes, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

Thank you.

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