‘Not Poor’ vs. Self-Sufficient

(Fr. Rausch is a Glenmary priest who writes, teaches and organizes in Appalachia. This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)

This month when their hot water heater quit and they had a minor accident with the car, it meant financial crisis.

April works full time at a convenience store in a small Appalachian community. After five years making minimum wage, she got a raise this past year to $6.65/hour — $216 take home per week. James works seasonally at logging, but winter and rainy days cap his income. Their combined earnings qualify them for $227 a month of food stamps. April and James with their two children, ages 7 and 8, represent a family living in poverty. More precisely, they are the working poor.

According to the official definition of the U.S. Census Bureau, the poverty threshold for a family of four in 1999 was $17,184. In 1963, Mollie Orshansky, a researcher with the Social Security Administration, developed the methodology to define poverty. She identified as poor an individual or family that lacked sufficient income to afford a nutritionally adequate diet. She then fused two pieces of information. First, from the 1950s the U.S. Department of Agriculture determined that a moderate income family spends one third of its earnings on food. Second, the agency developed a series of food plans that provided the minimum calories necessary to survive. Orshansky chose the economy food plan and multiplied by three. Adjusting for the number and age of family members and accounting for the average increase in consumer prices, this method still establishes the federal poverty line today.

While the Orshansky method helped define poverty in economic terms for the 1960s, forty years later this approach limps. The early budgets omitted the cost of child care assuming one parent stayed home. And, since the 1950s essential family costs like housing, health care and transportation have risen faster than the cost of food. Whereas formerly food costs represented one-third of a family budget, today it comprises only an eighth. Using the Orshansky method the poverty line would be calculated at eight times, not three times, the cost of food.

If together April and James earned above the poverty line figure of $17,184, they would be classified “not poor,” yet still lack the resources to live self-sufficiently. One study by Diana Peace and Jennifer Brooks defines self-sufficiency as “maintaining a decent standard of living and not having to choose between basic necessities.” For April and James this would eliminate the trade-off between fixing the family car to go to work and paying the electric bill to keep the lights on.

From a faith perspective, self-sufficiency means affirming everyone's human dignity by allowing each person to participate in society and make a contribution. Different from the concept of “rugged individualism,” self-sufficiency represents an interdependence between families, churches and local organizations that knits together the fabric of community.

The Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) continues to remind us that 32 million Americans still fall below the poverty line. Of these 12 million are children. Another 7.2 million represent the working poor. Public policy that encourages living wage laws and universal health insurance would target the neediest among us. CCHD's support for self-help efforts will forge an alliance between the marginalized and church members. Authentic development goes beyond supplying just enough calories to survive. It allows families like April and James to drive on the road to self-sufficiency.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage