Thursday, July 26, 2007

Who is Poor?

We recall the lawyer who asked Jesus “Who is my neighbor?” In the meeting with the rich young man, Jesus said “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor,” but did anyone think to ask Jesus “Who is poor?” I’ve always thought that was an important, and relatively unexplored, question. From my inexpert reading of the Bible I suspect that very few in Jesus’ party were likely thought to be “poor” according to the meaning of this encounter (think about the possessions and occupations of Jesus friends, family, and acquaintances). And, likewise, is a person “poor” in America when compared to other Americans, to Americans of the Great Depression, to other contemporary people in Africa or Asia, or to people in Jesus time?

The American Enterprise Institute has posted a pair of truly thought-provoking articles from its scholars from the past couple of years on the topic of poverty. One is by Douglas Besharov, another is by Nicholas Eberstadt. The following observations jumped out at me.

1 ) Although income indicators for African Americans have grown impressively, a disproportionate number of African Americans, especially young men, remained detached from the formal American economy.

2 ) The explosive growth of college enrollments in recent years mirrors a perverse de-emphasis on skilled, technical employment. These skilled occupations have traditionally been a way out of poverty of millions of Americans over the years.

3 ) Income is our primary statistical basis for measuring poverty, and formerly income closely tracked consumption. Consumption, after all, is what actually defines daily life for a poor person. But the relationship has radically changed. A “poor” family today is more likely to have central air conditioning than a “non poor” family was in the 1980. A poor family in 2004, on average, spends approximately 95 percent more than their income. This suggests such things as an increasing volatility in episodes of poverty.

Each of these articles is thought provoking in addressing the question, “Who is poor in America?” We must have a grip on this question before we can address public policies for reducing poverty.

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