Understanding the Nature of Poverty in Urban America

By James Jennings | Go to book overview

CHAPTER I
What Is Poverty, and How Is Poverty Measured by the Federal Government?

[Let us not] allow statistical quibbling to obscure the huge, enormous, and intolerable fact of poverty in America.

Michael Harrington The Other America ( 1962)

In modern society defining poverty has been an exercise involving much debate. It has been defined differently in various historical periods and has reflected a range of ideological orientations. Today, even the quantitative approaches to defining poverty have been debated widely. Five areas have been identified by Daniel H. Weinberg, chief of the Census Bureau's Housing and Household Economic Statistics Division, as needing further attention in order to develop a better model for determining poverty. These are: "the evaluation of non-cash benefits, developing a new measure of spending needs, finding ways to account for tax burdens, reducing the underreporting of income and changing the adjustments for family size." 1 Defining poverty is difficult because the very definition one uses has immediate ideological and public policy implications. How one defines poverty reflects something about what one feels is the nature of poverty, and what one believes should be the government's response to it. How poverty is defined can also predetermine the public policies that will be chosen to eliminate, reduce, or alleviate poverty in urban America.

According to Peter Townsend Poverty in the United Kingdom, one of the first modern researchers to attempt to determine an empirically-based definition of poverty was B. Seebohm Rowntree. 2 In Poverty: A Study of Town Life, a work published in Britain around the turn of the century, Rowntree attempted to establish a definition of poverty by determining how much an individual needed to obtain food. 3 Rowntree's work was partially based on that of philosopher Friedrich Engels in 1857. Engels noted that there was an inverse relationship between income and the percentage of total expenditure spent on food; this is referred to as "Engels' Coefficient." 4 Rowntree moved from this point and reasoned that poor families are those where "total earnings are insufficient to obtain the minimum necessaries for the maintenance of merely physical efficiency." 5

Social welfare analyst Michael Sherraden writes that Robert Hunter provided the "first statistical view of poverty in the United States...He concluded that, in a total population of 80 million, 10 million lived in poverty." 6

-9-

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