Letter: Definitions of poverty relative

This is a response to the recent Advocate article on Louisiana’s poverty rate, one of the nation’s highest.

The official economic definitions of poverty in developed countries are relative.

As shown in the chart accompanying your article, since 1982 in the United States, it’s been the lowest-earning 12 percent to 15 percent of the population. Obviously, if poverty is defined as a semi-fixed fraction of the economic spectrum, it will be ever-present.

“Poor” is currently defined by the federal government as a family of four making less than $23,283 annually. By comparison, the Indian government defines poverty as $360 or less a year for rural families, which is doubtless not a relative value.

In the U.S., poverty can include folks having a rented apartment or house with a waterproof roof, several rooms, reasonably airtight windows and walls, screens over glass windows, and a floor made of something other than dirt; indoor flush toilet, bathtub, hot and cold running water, a gas or electric stove, electric lights, a floor furnace and maybe a window air conditioner; perhaps an old car or at least a bicycle; a refrigerator, a color TV with antenna, a cellphone, a microwave, a toaster, plenty of mediocre, partially government-subsidized food, often to the point of obesity, schooling for children at public expense, serviceable warm, cheap clothes and shoes, a separate bed for each family member over age 12 and soon, partially subsidized health insurance.

An American family can have these goods and services and still be considered poverty-stricken; a century and more ago, such a lifestyle, had it been possible, would have exceeded that of the middle class.

I’m glad that America is rich and that some of our designated poor folks are well off by world standards; I just wish we’d quit yammering about this so-called poverty.

Poverty as defined above is essential for our economic well-being. If not for economic stratification, those living above the bottom level would have less to fret about and less motivation to get out of bed and go to work.

As much as our economic meritocracy allows hard-working, smart, innovative people— and regrettably, also sometimes conniving, unethical cheaters and criminals, too — to prosper economically, it also lets the lazy, stupid, uneducated — and unfortunately, occasionally the merely unlucky — sink. That, warts and all, is the American system, and it’s worked over the last four centuries to create the abundance noted above.

We absolutely need moderate government regulation to counterbalance powerful, well-organized economic predators, but quasi-equality of outcomes and circumstances across entire populations and regardless of individual talent and effort is neither possible nor desirable.

Ron Sammonds Jr.

retired engineer

Baton Rouge