In Response to Noah Smith

On 26 November 2018, Noah Smith’s “America Is Poorer Than It Thinks” appeared on Bloomberg.com. In it, Smith articulates prevailing definitions of poverty–absolute poverty, determined by government figures, and relative poverty, determined by standing relative to the local median income–before arguing in favor of material in/security as articulated by Maslow in his hierarchy of needs. Smith offers examples of Maslovian material insecurity and extrapolates from them based on others’ research. Smith concludes with the assertion that a better, more complete definition of poverty such as that deriving from Maslow’s ideas can help in addressing poverty, which developed nations ought to do.

When the wallet looks like this…
Image from Getty.

I’m familiar with Maslow and his hierarchy of needs from the coursework I did to earn teaching certification in those long-ago days when I thought I’d be at the front of a high school classroom for my profession. As such, the idea that insecurity about basic physical needs could inform a definition of poverty seems sound to me–but I’ll admit to not being an economist. If such an idea holds, though, then it seems that Smith’s central assertion is correct; if poverty is insecurity regarding material needs, then many, many more people are impoverished than income alone would indicate. In my own case, working one full-time job, one part-time job, a contract gig, freelancing, and still not making enough that I can afford usable health insurance coverage or put back enough money that I can afford to be out of work for very long at all, the definition fits, even though I am aware that matters could be far worse than they are.

And that leads to another point, one on which Smith does not touch, though he motions that way. One of the things, at least in my part of the world, that prevents many people from seeking help is not so much pride as a sense that asking would indicate ingratitude for what is already had, that things are not worse than they are. Folks above the poverty line, even if only by a bare margin, know they are not “impoverished,” at least in that narrowly technical sense, so they do not seek assistance, even though there is no measure by which they are doing well. Less bad is still bad, but the way things seem currently constructed makes such matters an either/or proposition, and many people feel themselves on the wrong side of it who might not if they had a better rubric by which to assess themselves and their situations. It would not be a panacea, to be sure; there would still be people who would worry that they are not badly enough off that they ought to ask for a hand up. But they might at least act from a better idea of how matters stand, which would help.

I could use a hand staying further away from poverty. Your contribution is welcome.

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