Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Economic Security vs. Poverty, What’s the Difference?

Today is National Blog Action Day on Poverty. People all over the country are blogging about why poverty is an important topic for discussion and why we must work toward ending it in our communities across the nation and worldwide.

Last week, representatives from WOW and some of our state partners met in DC to discuss the importance of language in creating policy and program change to eliminate poverty. We believe eliminating poverty is an important goal. Another goal, and perhaps more important, is getting women and their families on track to self-sufficiency and lifelong economic security.

During our meeting, one of the exercises involved placing a list of words, such as deprivation, poverty, income inadequacy, middle class, decent living standard and economic independence, on an income continuum, ranging from $0 to economic nirvana. Interestingly, I noticed that our state partners did not equate “middle class” with “economic security”. But in retrospect, there are many levels of economic (in)security. Many hard working Americans are living paycheck to paycheck without being able to save for their retirement, education or an emergency, and that is not a secure place to be. Yet, this reality is neither discussed nor captured in most anti-poverty policies and programs.

WOW supports and encourages the discussion taking place today. Nevertheless, we are working to create a national shift in the language surrounding poverty to one of economic security for all. Part of this effort involves re-examining the way poverty is measured and offering concrete alternatives and solutions. To truly solve the problem of poverty, or economic (in)security, we need a more precise tool to measure economic security.

The Federal Poverty Line is an antiquated and insufficient standard of economic living which assumes one-third of an American family’s income is used for food. The Federal Poverty Line grossly underestimates economic (in)security in the United States. Many Americans know first-hand what it means not to have enough. They sacrifice heating or cooling their homes, eating nutritious foods and cut pills in half to get by. An arbitrary number that quantifies this reality is not a useful tool in moving out of their circumstance. What they really need to know is how much is enough and how to get there. Policymakers also need to know what it takes to be economically secure in order to shape effective policy.

WOW’s tools, the Self-Sufficiency Standard and the Elder Economic Security Standard Index, provide a geographically-based measure of what it really takes to make ends meet. These measures provide families and elders a map to economic security, whether it be a result of education and training, a job, income or work supports or some combination of these. Only when one knows where they are going can they reach economic security.

Today I challenge you to think about poverty in a slightly different way. Instead of defining the issue in regard to what one does not have, let’s try to change the national discourse one voice at a time by blogging about helping all Americans leverage the talents and personal assets they do have to become economically secure.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I like the paradigm shift. It seems that part of what gets in the way to moving forward as a society is people's need to assign blame, which both of our nation's major political parties seem so caught up in (historically), although blame is assigned differently by each. Of course none of this helps advance the laudable goals of the previous "war on poverty" nor economic security.

And then of course is the whole issue of needs versus wants. As a society we seem to get confused between being unable to meet basic needs (food, clothing, shelter) due to inadequate resources, and those who always seem to struggle finanically no matter what the income level. Yet in the second instance, the problem is not insufficient income but rather one of choices and financial illiteracy.

Amazingly with as fundamental as money is to our society, the vast majority of people are never taught the fundamentals of money and money management, and so on top of current finanancial issues before our nation and world, many people don't realize they really can control their destiny by making different financial choices. Of course I am not referring to the example of the elderly couple on a fixed income, which is an issue near and dear to my heart with which we have a moral imperative to act.

But how many of us wage earners may be more likely to change our family tree and position ourselves better for the "golden years" by knowing more and doing more now to plan for the seasons of life? Economic insecurity should not be an inevitable part of aging, nor life, and undoubtedly public policies play a role, as well as our connectedness to one another, while much of it lies in becoming more financially literate to be able to recognize and then act upon different choices.

To me, innoculating current and future generations must involve hands on education and a whole other paradigm shift about our relationship to money. I am sure others could say this much more eloquently than I, and please forgive me if the above offends, as that is not my intention at all.