The Issue: Poverty

Elena Delavega
Associate Professor, Social Work, The University of Memphis

What is poverty? In the most basic terms, poverty is the lack of financial resources to meet basic needs. Much has been written about what poverty is, whether it is a culture, behaviors, or feelings. However, none of these definitions of poverty is accurate. The simple reality is that poverty is lack of financial resources, lack of money. People with sufficient income or wealth are not in poverty regardless of their behavior. People who lack financial resources are in poverty regardless of their emotional state. 

It is important to define poverty appropriately because how we define poverty and the causes thereof will determine the interventions we choose to address it. If we define poverty as loneliness, we will address it through hugs, and if we define poverty as behavioral failings, we will implement behavioral interventions. None of these will do anything to end poverty, however, because in the end the only thing that will eliminate poverty is providing people with sufficient financial resources to meet their needs. ...Read More.

In Memphis, “Culture of Poverty” approaches have led us to a number of interventions with the poor that attempt to address their “failings” as human beings. The poor are accused of drinking too much, of being lazy, of drug use, of mismanaging their money, and of bad parenting regardless of whether any of these things are more true among the poor than among other people. Interventions to reduce poverty thus attempt to help the poor with their drinking, their poor parenting, and their lack of financial acumen. The reality is that when it costs more to live than the wages one receives, no amount of financial education will result in sufficient income to meet one’s basic needs. Parenting classes will not give a poor mother more time with her children if she needs to work two jobs to support them. 

What we need to do as a community is to work together to create systems and policies to support everyone’s basic needs and to create opportunities for every person in this community. We need a system of social protection that provides a foundation for working families to thrive, and we need to recognize that workers are the foundation of society. The wellbeing of workers is the foundation for a thriving economy. This translates into comprehensive, efficient, and inexpensive public transportation; free or very low cost higher education; a living wage that permits a family of four to live with dignity; affordable housing; universal healthcare (such as Medicare for all); and strong retirement pensions (such as Social Security). When we, as a community, provide such supports, poverty will not have a reason to exist.

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