05 November 2011

48. Poverty

Dear poverty,

So what's all this I hear about the United States Census Bureau coming up with a new way to define you? Yesterday's New York Times says the new measure erases "as much as half of the reported rise in poverty since 2006" — because, you know, it's not like anything's happened in the past five years that might have increased the number of people struggling to get by! Ha, ha, only horrified.

I mean, I'm glad the new metric takes local cost of living into account, but what am I supposed to make of the idea that tax credits and benefits like unemployment and food assistance are counted as assets that (statistically) bump people out of poverty into what the Times calls "the hard-luck ranks of the near poor, who do not qualify for many benefit programs and lose income to taxes, child care and medical costs"? I'll get back to those benefit programs in a second, but first I've got to go on a little linguistic tear.

You see, that term, "near poor" reminds me of the scene in Why I Hate Saturn, wherein our down-on-her-luck heroine banters bitterly with a street person who asks,

...did you ever wonder who decided to call bums "homeless"? Why did that start? It seems that as "bums", we were individuals, but as "the homeless," we're an institution....

So the word "homeless" was created. It takes the stigma off. Instead of being viewed as lazy, I'm viewed as a victim of society. When society acknowledges you as one of its victims, rather than one of its members, it no longer has any responsibility to help you.

The creation of a nice euphemism (like "homeless" instead of "bum," "Native Americans" instead of "Indians," or "African Americans" instead of "blacks"), he notes, "always signifies a major fucking."

Speaking of major fuckings, eligibility for benefits like unemployment and food assistance is determined in part by income relative to the poverty line — so what does that mean under this new definition of poverty? People who qualify for enough benefits aren't poor anymore, thanks to those benefits, and since they're not poor, clearly they don't need benefits, except without them, they'd be poor again? What? How does that work?

I'm exaggerating a little for effect, here, poverty: as far as I know the new measure isn't being applied to benefits eligibility yet — because holy mother of circular logic nightmare, Batman! — but I am really not looking forward to what this new spin on the data will do to "See, there's not that many poor people after all, we can totally cut entitlements!" arguments. Ugh.

Anyway, I know I'm hardly even beginning to scratch the tip of the iceberg with this little rantlet, poverty. I mean, I've written this far and haven't even until just now mentioned the cognitive load of always being in crisis mode (I didn't mean for that to rhyme, it just did). If I got into time poverty or the social determinants of health, this letter would turn into a book for sure. All of which is to say that this is almost certainly not the last socioeconomic justice-related Open Letter I'll be writing. But for now, this is as good a place as any I've found to stop until I write again.