It’s entirely true that in our current society there are those who have less than others. It’s also said that there is true poverty in our society. That second isn’t really true. Poverty is being measured as having less than others, not as having near nothing. Further, most American poverty is measured before all of the things that we do to alleviate poverty – Section 8, EITC, food stamps and so on.
It is though possible to just stop a moment and consider what people do call poverty in this modern day. It’s not anything that our forefathers would have noted as it. Actually, it’s well above anything that even current global standards would define as poverty.
Now Amazon and Walmart are piloting a two-year program that will allow low-income shoppers to pay for groceries online using food stamps. On Thursday, the US Department of Agriculture announced it had teamed up with Amazon and Walmart to allow participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, a.k.a. food stamps) to buy groceries on these sites using their government-allotted benefits.
That seems entirely sensible and there’s no problem around here with it happening. But think about it a little more deeply for a moment:
There are currently about 38 million food stamp recipients in the US, according to the USDA. In order to qualify, participants need to be at or below the poverty line. (A family of four, according to these guidelines, earns around or below a gross monthly income of $2,665.) Participants in the government-funded program receive benefits on payment cards, which can be used like debit cards to pay for groceries; the average family of four receives $465 a month.
The actual global definition of poverty is $1.90 a day. This is total consumption. No, not income, definitely not cash income. It’s measured using PPP exchange rates, so we’ve already taken account of price differences across geography. And it’s total consumption per person per day. The value of housing consumed, of clothing worn, of health care delivered, energy used, food eaten, on that day all contributes to that $1.90. We are saying that people have to buy life, in a US Walmart of today, for $1.90 per person per day.
The reason we use this number is because it’s a bit above the true subsistence level. Go well below this for considerable lengths of time and you will be dead. And the modal experience of humanity has been to be a bit above the subsistence level. This is how the vast majority of human beings lived all through history. This is how some 700 million out there still live. Thus this is our definition of absolute poverty.
Now look at that American experience. We’re defining as in poverty people on more than $20 a day in cash income per person. That’s before any of the things government does to alleviate poverty. Before the value of Section 8, Medicaid, the EITC and so on. We say they’re so into poverty that the people below this line gain an average of $3.87 a day per person just to buy food with.
That is, just the average food stamp – for those who get them – allowance is twice our global measure of absolute poverty per day. And now look at what we’re saying further. People getting that twice the poverty level of food alone delivered to their door are still in poverty.
Well, no, they’re not. Getting $4 a day’s worth of food delivered, food of your choice buckshee and freebie, means you’re not actually poor when poverty is less than $1.90 a day. So, we really do have to say that there’s no poverty in our modern world, don’t we?
Sure, there’s inequality, but that’s a different thing.