What is poverty?

The usual measure is economic. Those who don’t fall into that category tend to accept data reported by government agencies, but a recent article from the Indiana Capital Chronicle points out that Hoosiers with income inadequate to meet basic needs “is much higher and more extensive in Indiana than official counts would suggest — particularly among working, single mothers of color.”

The Overlooked and Undercounted report commissioned by the Indiana Community Action Poverty Institute analyzed how wages failed to keep pace even as expenses to families increased – namely food, shelter, health care, transportation and child care costs.

However, federal and state governments continue to use a measure that defines poverty based on one cost alone – food – and doesn’t account for increases in other categories.

This is hardly a surprise. I’ve previously posted about the ALICE research conducted by Indiana’s United Ways.

AlLICE is an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. ALICE households have income above the official federal poverty level, but below reality– the actual, basic cost of living. The first report, issued in 2014, was eye-opening. Researchers found that

  • More than one in three Hoosier households cannot afford the basics of housing, food, health care and transportation, despite working hard.
  • In Indiana, 37% of households live below the Alice threshold, with some 14% below the poverty level and another 23% above poverty but below the cost of living.
  • These families and individuals have jobs, and many do not qualify for social services or support.
  • The jobs they are filling are critically important to Hoosier communities. These are our child care workers, laborers, movers, home health aides, heavy truck drivers, store clerks, repair workers and office assistants—yet they are unsure if they’ll be able to put dinner on the table each night.
  • For families living on the edge, families struggling just to put that dinner on the table, saving money is a pipe dream. There is nothing left to save. So these families are vulnerable to any unexpected expense—a car repair, an uninsured illness, even an unexpectedly high utility bill can be enough to plunge them into debt or worse.

For obvious reasons, families falling into this category struggle to find the time and energy to participate in civil society, or to engage in the kinds of information-gathering necessary to create informed voters. Financial poverty is all too often so overwhelming a challenge that the other “riches” that most of us take for granted–social, civic, intellectual–are simply beyond reach.

The United Way report was updated in 2016 and again in 2018. It probably won’t surprise you that ALICE’s situation didn’t improve. In 2018, I wrote

As the researchers point out, traditional measures of poverty don’t capture the real picture–the number of people who are struggling financially because the actual cost of life’s necessities where they live is more than they earn.

Indiana, for example, has 2,530,581 households. Thirteen and a half percent of those households fall below the official poverty line–but another 25.2% fall between the poverty line and the ALICE threshold. That’s 38.7% of Hoosiers who face a constant, debilitating struggle for economic survival….

The stress experienced by impoverished and ALICE families isn’t just financial: struggling people live in poorer neighborhoods that are less safe and less healthy. They lack the time and resources that permit other citizens to participate in civic and political life–and as a result, their voices aren’t heard–or their needs considered– in most public policy debates.

As the ALICE reports have emphasized, ALICE folks are in large part the workers that we more privileged folks rely upon for a multitude of essential services. Evidently, we aren’t willing to pay a living wage to the people who provide those services. (There’s a parallel here with our unwillingness to pay taxes adequate to support the public services we demand.)

The irony is, we pay in other ways. As the ALICE reports and the  Business Journal series document, there are significant social costs to a system that leaves so many hard-working people behind.

Dismissing the struggle of ALICE families as a consequence of laziness or lack of ambition is a sign of moral obtuseness–when it isn’t intentionally self-serving. When you tell people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, you should probably check to see if they have any boots.

The Capital Chronicle found that Hoosier families struggling to make ends meet are “neither a small nor a marginal group, but rather represent a substantial proportion of households in the state”… More than one in four Indiana households lacks enough income to meet basic needs.

Meanwhile, we punish poverty. Effective state and local tax rates start at 11.4 percent for the poorest 20 percent of Americans, fall to 9.9 percent for the middle 20 percent, and then decline to 7.4 percent for the top 1 percent.

After all,  ALICE folks can’t afford lobbyists.


  1. One thing you didn’t mention is that unmarried childless people can’t get support either. They have to be parents to a minor, so the state just doesn’t believe they need assistance either. Just because you’re single and childless doesn’t mean you can afford to survive. That’s one reason why I support Universal Income for all. It’s not just the Hoosier state either, it’s all red states.

  2. Produce is an excellent example of cost prohibitive items necessary for a healthy diet but in the past few years produce is also quality prohibitive to a healthy diet. If you can afford it, or spend a little extra, the imported produce is often too tasteless to eat and is discarded. Canned crushed pineapple is an example of canned foods skimping on quality to maintain profit levels; the brand doesn’t matter because they all now crush the core with the fruit resulting in hard, pithy chunks. I recently purchased a bag of boneless, skinless chicken breasts from Kroger, imported from Chile, which had what appeared to be areas of fat but outer edges were a solid, tough covering. Were they even chicken. Some packages now contain lower amounts for higher costs resulting all shoppers, no matter their economic level, so the majority of shoppers are unable to meet their basic needs for a healthy diet.

    But as always, those living at poverty level are the greatest victims. But; what about the Indiana farmers who once produced the quality produce for our tables who are no longer able or allowed to farm their acres?

  3. Poverty by all definition is complicated. Any one observation is inadequate and often judged insensitive. What is the main reason for lack of access to social and economic desirable roles? One significant reason is the absence of social capital: the human initiative to engage and enroll. I love success stories that defy my observation. Upon further inquiry, the common denominator was initiative of the individual who found a way out to sustainable living. Now to further debate. Bring it on.

  4. We are becoming more obsessed with financial issues than people. Many products and items are completely out of reach of 80% of our citizens. Producers don’t care that only 20% can afford their product or service. It is all about higher returns on their investments and people be damned.

    I contend that the Republicans are the most power-seeking, autocratic, and financially driven party. They only want more money and higher profit margins. I think it is getting to the point that we need a guaranteed minimum personal income or start offering subsidized public transportation and child care for people below a living wage. We need to offer support to ALICE citizens. Hunger should not exist in America when we are growing at the rate it is. I find it is unconscionable that we are the wealthiest western economy in the world. Homelessness should not be growing as fast as it is. An elitist 10% of Americans are driving these issues. Many citizens are obsessed with increasing profit margins and creating divisiveness to stoke fear and desperation. This gives them cover and votes. it is a large party of many like-thinking Americans that do not wish to consider alternatives or historic trends demonstrating that people are suffering.

    Autocratic, ego-driven liars are taking over the good old USA. Instead of fixing issues, they allow the issues to fester and keep repeating the same lies.

  5. Norris, I have to agree with you about the lack of “human initiative to engage and enroll”. What I would add is that such human initiative is taught/instilled in children beginning at home. Good parenting is the basis for a person’s success at becoming a self reliant adult. I’m not saying that this is all it takes, but certainly this is where human imitative begins.

  6. A country with the most billionaires should not be producing poverty. There is room for abundance for all citizens and then some.

    Maybe, if we stop spending all our tax money on wars and building bases all around the globe. Is that too easy?

    Rick said, “It is all about higher returns on their investments, and people be damned.”


    It’s the definition of capitalism. Sadly, the producers are getting screwed like they always have, and the apologists, like Mike Hicks at Ball State and Paul the Apologist, break it down to choices.

    “If you make one bad choice that brings a lifetime of suffering, that’s the price you pay for making poor choices.”

    Our form of capitalism now requires authoritarian politicos to keep people in line and lots of censorship by the Tech industry.

  7. That $325 in state tax refunds last year still confounds me. The reason that Indiana was able to give that refund is because Indiana has some of the most regressive tax policies in the US. As all of the lower income people start to do better, Indiana state tax collections soar. With last years rising wages, of course tax collection went up, especially at the lower end. Despite the regressive nature of Indiana tax collections, everyone got the same refund (but only if you file state taxes).

    How are Indiana taxes so much higher for poor people? Only 35% of Indiana tax revenue is from income tax (there is a study committee being formed to eliminate this, BTW). A good chunk of tax income comes from sales taxes and gasoline tax, car and driver license fees, etc. If you make $100,000 a year you spend only a small percentage of your income on things like clothing, books, paper, and other consumer goods. If you make $30K a year, that percentage is much higher, so a 6% sales tax take a much larger share of your income. Even driving an old beater, $125 license fee is a much larger chunk of income than a guy with a $100K income. At the same time, that old beater most likely uses more gas, and you pay more in gas taxes. I suspect most low income people rent and for rental property the tax rate is already double of owner occupied property in Indiana, and any landlord just passes that cost on to the tenant.

    If anything Indiana needs to shift more taxes to income tax, with better breaks at the low end, while at the same time eliminating the Federal Adjusted Gross adjustment. Creative AGI is reason why people like Trump get by with paying zero taxes.

  8. The next time we have a “War on Poverty” we need to make absolutely certain that we aren’t, once again, waging a “War on the Poor.”

  9. I have been trying to help people understand this issue for years, but privileged people that have never struggled prefer to believe those who must rely on food stamps and rental assistance are lazy and are the reason taxes are so high. They automatically assume people on govt assistance are just refusing to work and need to be forced to get a job.

    Everyone on this blog knows the real welfare queens are the large extremely profitable corporations that don’t pay their employees a living wage. I ask my complaining friends if they could live on $10 or $12 or even $15/hr and they always say no, but they also don’t want to give up cheap prices at restaurants or fast food establishments or big box stores.

    Then I explain that our income taxes could be reduced if we weren’t forced by the government to subsidize businesses that could easily afford to pay a living wage. Most people don’t make the effort to understand that the root of the problem is greedy corps/businesses. It’s much easier to blame those invisible lazy people that refuse to work.

  10. Dan – excellent points about taxes. However, I will not be shocked at all if the state legislature decides to eliminate income taxes and make up the difference with higher sales taxes. Let’s go ahead and make those struggling on low wages struggle even harder. That’s the republican way.

  11. It’s not just Indiana. Mississippi, for example has about twice as many people living in poverty than Indiana. Last thing I read on the subject, I learned that we have, perhaps 50 MILLION U.S. citizens and residents who are food insecure.

    In many inner-city schools, the cafeteria workers look the other way as some kids stuff their pockets with food they can take home for dinner.

    Oh, and let’s not forget single-parent teachers who work two jobs and whose children often qualify for government-assisted meals at school.

    Todd and others have it correct in that corporations earning billions for the stockholders still don’t pay their fair share of taxes. For example, those $7 million Super Bowl ads? Not worry. They’re tax deductible. And then there’s Hobby Lobby fronting two religious ads while that $14 million they spent goes to the stockholders – eventually – of Fox Sports.

    AND over 60% of U.S. cash sits happily in foreign banks making the billionaires richer while the depositors pay no taxes.

    We can thank Republican legislators for all this, of course. And the few Democrats who are also corrupted by bribes from corporate/banking America.

    In today’s news, we discover how truly cynical FoxNews is/has been with regard to their viewers. They have created a base of idiots and simply can’t do anything to alienate them for the sake of profits and stock prices by telling the truth. And they’re still spreading the Big Lie.

    If I was younger and able, I’d seriously consider following Dr. Stan’s strategy. But, alas, I continue to push that rock up the hill.

  12. JoAnn – re your question
    “ what about the Indiana farmers who once produced the quality produce for our tables who are no longer able or allowed to farm their acres?”

    I don’t understand what you are referring to – can you provide more detail?

  13. That poverty is heart-wrenching is inarguable for people with hearts to wrench. However, some people only care about themselves and others only care about their families. They must be included in the conversation if the goal is to reduce the problem.

    Why reduce it? I think because it spawns other costly problems like depression leading to drug use, crime, future generations no better than this one, and social instability caused by people having to survive with inadequate resources to survive whole. It’s pandemic-like.

    Of course, some people who are needed to solve this problem have already. They blame others. The trouble is that makes the problem worse not better.

    We have two very effective solutions now but they are inadequate as designed. Promote education and teach young enough about responsible sex. Not just how to but why be responsible. About the pride of personal accomplishment, about building futures by investing yourself in your dreams.

    A problem with this approach is it requires others to assume what normally are the responsibilities of parents but without the authority of parents. This is where the rubber meets the road in solutions like these. They involve time-intensive counseling that requires skills only invested in relatively few individuals.

    The bottom line is if we should invest in solutions or the consequence of problems. Those who pretend to solve the problem with blame would say no. They should just continue blaming. It’s cheaper, especially if you also solve the cost of consequences problem by blaming. Blaming is the universal cheap problem solution despite zero evidence of it ever working.

  14. Norris. It takes an exceptional person to overcome a “constant debilitating struggle for economic survival.” Exceptional means only a tiny fraction of people will be in that category…unless they live in Lake Woebegon where all the children are above average. You want to count on that to save society?

  15. What’s fair about taxation? Nothing! You would think in this so-called time of enlightenment, those who are chosen to take care of The people’s work, could actually do their job….

    Chicago, almost every viaduct heading towards downtown is packed with individuals living in tents and boxes. Knoxville Tennessee, by the homeless mission, we drove through there in the fall, there were hundreds of people trying to squeeze underneath the bridge a half a block away, cars that passed their useful days were packed full of people. Umbrellas and tents, as far as you could see. The same in Milwaukee which is right to the north of me, Kenosha Wisconsin is another one. Seeing my sister out in Washington State, it could even be worse than here, San Francisco used to be a beautiful city, now it looks like a junkyard! It’s not like nobody is aware! UBI? Don’t hold your breath! People are told to get a job, to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but with a failing educational system, the failing family unit, the paralyzation by the superior authorities, you just better hope you always have enough money to provide shelter over your head. And, when they end up destroying social security and Medicare, and, Medicaid has gone the way of the dinosaur, the same with food vouchers and food banks along with shelter, people will wish for the good old days during the Great depression. That is if it’s even taught in the history books anymore!

    Moral decay, it doesn’t just affect the average citizen, it affects how government functions. Because with the decaying of morality, those who push their agendas, have an oversized influence on the politicians usually money and ill gotten gains, or maybe even a little blackmail! And of course, let’s not forget big business and how they avoid their tax obligations by contributing tons of money to the campaign coffers of their lackies in government.

    Many of these politicians want there to be a huge die off of the poor, because as in Nazi Germany, that’s exactly what they did! The critically ill, those who were mentally deficient, those who are minorities, The elderly, those who preached compassion, were the first to be rounded up and either executed or worked to death in prison camps, depending on their usefulness. Russia does it today with its orthodox Church backing, so does China with their ancestral worship!

    The United Nations is nothing but a toothless tiger that can make demands, but if those who are the recipient of those demands refuse to listen, there’s nothing they can do.

    It would be very simple for the president of the United States to actually unilaterally do something, but, they cling to a failed ideal, an ideal that has never worked, never has and never will. They put faith in failure! Humanity will just watch as it burns down and wonder why! Why? Why.

    Faith is sorely lacking, because the EnVogue thing today is faithlessness. But, you put your faith in that lottery ticket! Or all of your hope in that lottery ticket! Or maybe having faith that your selected politician will actually get a clue!

    Let me tell you something here, if the politicians would have had a clue or some semblance of a clue, they would have done something by now. The Boston tea party was a fairly astonishing thing at the time, for those individuals to go against the Crown, that was a life or death risk. But still, they were white people dressed up like Native Americans, and of course slavery was in full effect here. Political correctness? What is that? Political incorrectness? What is that? Political inepness? Probably!

    The willingness to not do anything, to be paralyzed, is it purposeful? Is it really because of all of this infighting? Don’t you think the wealthy and the politicians would love to see a large portion of this population die off? The tools are laying right in front of these politicians, to actually build something better, but the willpower is non-existent.
    Human life is expendable, no different than Russia, Nazi Germany, China, and myriads of examples in history. The same thing over and over and over, the trouble is, eventually it will reach its breaking point, and there will be no recovery, because the planet won’t be able to sustain it let alone it’s inhabitants!

  16. Nancy @ 10:12; produce in our stores are imported from other states and other countries. Driving in rural areas on the east/southeast side of Indianapolis once flourished with acres and acres of lush corn and soybean fields, Indiana cantaloupes and tomatoes always juicy and delicious no longer in our produce areas. What is there is tasteless and overpriced; how on earth can lettuce be tough to chew? No only the acres of farmland but once the truck gardens provided produce for neighborhood markets and had roadside stands where delicious fresh produce could be bought. We also had apple and peach orchards we could drive to the country to buy delicious fruit; apples in stores no longer have familiar names, all taste the same and are hard a rocks.

  17. John P. Sorg. Sounds like you have once again plunged so deep into the abyss of despair that you can see no light. Swim up, man. There is so much beauty, kindness and hope in the world if you would just allow yourself to see it. All the evils you list are real, but they are not the only reality and we can’t make things better by rolling over and giving up.

  18. trucking,ive been watching third party contractors become trucking recruiters for the investor owned INCs,and follow the trends and employment. I calling around on posted trucking jobs,starting jobs,we train u etc,and OJT. i wont bore the issues,but the cost of living alone on the road is stagering compared to being home,and only few if any truckstops have a sit down restaurant anyway,all opting for fast food and get out. but the issue with employment is the turnover rate,the ATA american trucking assoc,a think tank for investor owned and demanded cheap employment scams. says a 92% yearly tuenover,on facts they have to admit to. why,? money$$$. if the fact is there poverty in America, its many times in the jobs that no one wants,and what investors have targeted to exploit. theres plenty of cash flow,it just never is seen by the people who do the work,in many labor intensive jobs. ive talked to every con artist recruiter i can call over thirty years, seems when ya do the real math,ajusted for todays buck, truckers starting out are making the same wage dollar for dollar as i made in 1985. i took home a hundred dollars then,and new drivers take home less.now add tye cost of living on the road. the con is the mileage pay which the vast majority of trucking co. use. you get nothing sitting waiting for the truck to be loaded or unloaded, or living in it over nite every nite,you get no pay,if that unload takes you past a relaod time,then you loose a day driving waiting for a new load to be assigned to. if one was to look into the window and look at whos driving today.its minorities targeted to work like slaves and be happy getting screwed for a box to live in. poverty is rampit in every aspect of this nation,its just gotten more profound by media and then like sweeping it under a run for the ad bucks and whos influencing who. the game is way beyond fair,and way too old. as far as i see it, if it looks like poverty,it probably is,you cant count the costs of just any aspects of that life,you dont live it,just going to work is a challege to be on time.. you dont need scarps of paper with everyones opinion who qualifies for what, its all a matter of a few who have choosen who will live in poverty. those who have now been ordained to choose,have now all the money and control . we merely exist for them.. i call it economic slavery,you?

  19. John:
    your right,but Sharon is singing a tune as she merely drives by the issues..ive put the blinders on my horse to drive it along the county road,the horse didnt spook, as sharon drove by,John had his reality check..and reality sucks..

  20. Nancy:
    call a farm exetension buerau of local USDA field office,ask them why. seems the farming community isnt a free market. they are loacked it to be productive to the economy,not to the people. sure miss the road side tables full of edibles..

  21. It takes an exceptional person to overcome a “constant debilitating struggle for economic survival.”

    Point well taken, Sharon.

    Lifetime work with children and youth here in the homeland and Africa and Middle East. Many in extreme poverty the likes of which fortunately we do no see here in America.

    There are winners, losers and saveables. Far more saveables than limited resources can reach. Heart wrenching, but we learn to let go to focus on the saveables. Losers require the most expensive intervention and if you do not have deep resources, you learn not to sacrifice at the expense of saveables. That is the hard truth of social intervention and the economics of broad scale youth development.

    Absolute poverty is a minefield where abundant risk is very sobering to even the most seasoned detached youth worker. Sometimes the situation is so bad, even the gang leader brings his own young brother to us to save them from becoming another banger. Other kids have no hope to live beyond nineteen, if they’re lucky.

    I am retired now. I sleep well knowing I hit some home runs against all odds. But I weep watching too much of the local evening news. Kids killing kids. And I celebrate for those who more than survived and now thrive. 😊

  22. Jack,

    Right on my brother!

    I have it always been a person of faith so to speak, I mean no faith in anything. My faith in men or mankind was dashed many times. The klansman who murdered my great uncles after they returned from Europe and Guadal canal, The powers that be that let my great grandfathers brother and nephew die because they couldn’t go to a white person’s hospital! A 10-hour carriage ride on a supply wagon, didn’t cut it!

    In The second half of second grade and all of third grade and part of fourth grade, I was locked in a janitor’s closet with a board on top of the sink as a desk. Didn’t know why, I thought it was something I did. I didn’t even know what the word nigger meant! I just knew that the teachers called me that, and the kids that would abuse me constantly called me that. And some of those kids were actually in the 8th grade.

    It made me hateful, it it changed my brain function in a way. When I met my wife, who is black by the way, she was wonderful to me. Now I’m Native American Sicilian. and I have some Moroccan in me. I grew up with a lot of hate, and it was hard for me to return love. My avatar is me taking last year about 8 months ago. I used to collect gambling debts most the time they were from white folks. I was not nice. But I did get a certain amount of satisfaction. I was able to find some of those people that picked with me when I was younger, and took my pound of flesh. But My conscience always bothered me about what I was doing. My mother trained us boys to have a conscience to be compassionate and empathetic. And that’s the test, if you’re not shown that compassion and empathy can you give it out? It took many years but my wife is my Sarah and she taught me, she helped me!

    It took time but I realized that there was a lot of misery, and people that had to deal with the same things I did. Unfortunately I had the wherewithal to be able to help those folks. And I did and still do.

    So now, my faith has given me a respite concerning my internalized hatred that was forced upon me. God says, vengeance is mine, I will repay. So, I leave it there. But I am very protective of my family, I could tell you a lot of things that would take days and days. Let’s just say, it took a lot to not do what I wanted to do to these individuals. And it takes a lot to talk to folks about it. But, that’s what faith does, life’s experience along with age create a certain amount of wisdom. And if you know how to use that wisdom, you can help others! And I do every single day.

    So yeah, you know how it is Jack! If you talk the talk, You’ve got to walk the walk cuz we refuse to be hypocrites!

    That’s the way I choose now, my road is difficult, it’s narrow and cramped. And that’s just the way I prefer it.

    You just as I Jack, we’ve seen human nature, we’ve seen the good and way too much of the bad. And it’s easy to hate, but it is one of the most difficult things to forgive and to love. But my beautiful wife showed me away that’s better, and I have seen for myself, I’ve never had a harsh word uttered to me by a soul brother, but plenty by white folks!

    God asked Cain where his brother Abel was, now God already knew where he was, Cain killed his brother! But Cain said, am I my brother’s keeper? And really, we are supposed to be our brother’s keeper, just as they do the same for us!

  23. JoAnn Green. Yes, urban and industrial sprawl do cover up a lot of what was once productive farmland. An even greater threat is aridification caused largely by a combination of climate change and overpopulation, especially critical in the American Southwest. Fortunately, there are scientists and other concerned citizens working to address these and many other problems related to our food security. I live in Boone County and still find orchards and roadside produce stands in easy driving distance and I can grow a bit of good food in my garden. But I see the sprawl getting closer to me every year and it is worrisome.
    I applaud the people who are developing urban gardens, supporting food banks, experimenting with growing produce under solar panels, fostering farm to table networks, etc.

  24. JoAnn,
    I understand what you are talking about now. The roadside vegetable and fruit stands in my rural area all closed several decades ago. It was hard work with extremely low profit margins and the people that ran them worked long hours 7 days/week. It barely covered living expenses. There are still a couple apple orchards within a half hour drive and I still only buy apples from the orchards because as you mentioned, grocery store apples are tasteless or hard as rocks.

    I’m lucky enough to grow some vegetables myself and the flavor is great. Could you find someone to build a small raised bed garden for you so that you could grow some veggies for yourself?

  25. Jack. I stand by what I wrote before. All the evils you list are real, but they are not the only reality. I know that every generation of humans since there have been humans has faced crises and threats to their existence. They struggled, they suffered, they solved problems and enough of them survived to keep the species going or we wouldn’t be here to debate. You must have some hope or you wouldn’t care enough to comment. I’m just trying to nurture that hope.

  26. Crocodile tears. Is this intended to make us forget the pedestrian response to Palestine, Ohio by the administration? Perhaps the genuine response to American poverty is the need for the poverty stricken to be Ukrainian.

  27. Those who insist that the problem is “…lazy people that refuse to work,” are, themselves
    being, either, lazy thinkers, agenda driven greedy folks, or both.
    Hey, Rick, the rare “individual who found a way out,” is the exception to the rule, however
    much we may applaud him/her. It’s like the rare “miracle” survivor of the recent quake,
    and we do not go around asking the dead folks “What was the matter with you, that you
    could not be a survivor…lazy, or something?”
    The true “Welfare Queens” are, indeed, the big corporations on the dole.

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