Ask a Scholar: Does the Poverty Rate Affect the Non-Poor?

Lawrence M. Mead

  • Article
  • January 09, 2014

Dear Ask a Scholar: Does the poverty rate in the United States affect those who are not in poverty?

Answered by Professor Lawrence M. Mead, III, Department of Politics, New York University, author of The New Politics of Poverty: The Nonworking Poor in America, The New Paternalism: Supervisory Approaches to Poverty. Government Matters: Welfare Reform in Wisconsin, and Expanding Work Programs for Poor Men:

The short answer is no. There is no reason why people not in poverty should be affected by the government's estimate of how many people are in poverty. The mere presence of the poverty rate does not do anything to make poverty more serious or cause it to affect the non-poor.

The longer answer is that there may be some slight indirect connection. The publicity given the poverty rate may tend to make the non-poor more concerned about the problem and more likely to do something about it, for instance by engaging in charitable activity to help the poor. That would be a good effect.

On the other hand, poverty as currently measured somewhat exaggerates and misrepresents the poverty problem. The poverty rate is somewhat overstated because non-cash sources of income that the poor receive are not counted in their income, thus causing some needy to appear worse off than they really are. More important, the rate implies that poverty means having low income. While it partly means that, many long-term poor also live disordered lives. Especially, most fail to work regularly, usually for personal reasons. These lifestyle patterns are also part of poverty. This doesn't mean society should not help the poor, but it does mean that helping cannot consisty simply of giving them more income. They should also do more to help themselves. 

Help and self-help must go together. How to accomplish that is the great problem in anti-poverty policy.

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Image: improvement of the poor by Patrick // CC BY 

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