Poverty is a familiar feature of the holiday season, with the annual appeals to "give to the needy" or "consider those less fortunate." However, we rarely stop to think about what it actually means to be poor.
The federal government provides a useful starting point by publishing annual "poverty lines" for every family size. If a family's income is below the poverty line for its size, the family is considered poor for the purposes of federal support programs.
There are two connected problems with these poverty lines as a way to actually define poverty. The first is that they seem arbitrary. The federal government calculates poverty lines as three times the cost of food for a year in 1965, adjusted for inflation each year since. There's no clear reason to believe that definition would include the kinds of poverty we see around us.
The second problem with the federal poverty lines is that they are too low. The poverty line for a family of four in 2011 was $22,314, but we can easily imagine families struggling to get by at incomes above that.
One reason we know the government poverty lines are too low is the work of our local food pantries. These organizations often provide help to people who are well above the poverty lines. They don't do this because they are wasteful, but because they recognize that the families they work with often struggle to meet basic needs despite having incomes above the federal poverty lines.
We recommend adopting these organizations' definitions of poverty for government policy as well. Grass-roots organizations' familiarity with communities and families fighting poverty gives them a more accurate impression of what the definition of poverty might be, definitely more accurate than one based on the cost of food in 1965.
According to research, food pantries and similar organizations' definitions of poverty are around 180 percent of the poverty line, that is, considerably higher.
Through some basic analysis of census data, we can see what adopting the 180 percent line as the definition of poverty in North Carolina would have meant over the last nine years.
In every year since 2003, the number of North Carolinians under a 180 percent line hovers around 35 percent of the population, while the number of people falling below current poverty standards averages about 15 percent.
That is, the current poverty definitions show that approximately one in six people in North Carolina are in poverty. Using the more accurate 180 percent line would increase that proportion to one in three.
Those families who are above the current poverty lines but below the 180 percent line are much less likely to be eligible for most kinds of public support programs. The government's arbitrary definitions do not count them as poor, even though they may struggle to keep food on their tables.
Recent trends indicate acute challenges for both government and nonprofit social safety nets to continue providing service even at their current levels. The numbers of people under both lines have increased over the last several years because the general population has increased. More disturbingly, from 2009 to 2011 the percent of the population under the lower poverty line has increased relative to the 180 percent line.
The percentage of families in the worst situation is rising. More people are worse off than ever before.
This means that as food pantries see increased numbers of people, a greater proportion are in more desperate circumstances. More people will be eligible for government benefits, but as too many families know, government benefits can run out before the end of the month.
The first step in dealing with poverty is understanding its true scope. In the eyes of your local church, food pantry or charity providing emergency cash to pay the power bill, about 3 million North Carolinians would qualify for help. Not all of them seek help, but this is a much more realistic measure of potential need in our state.
If the opposite of concern is indifference, then we are as far from genuine concern over poverty as we can be. For there is no greater mark of indifference than to be uncounted.
Ben Chambers is a graduate student at the School of Government at UNC-Chapel Hill. Sharon Paynter is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at East Carolina University. Professor Maureen Berner of the UNC School of Government assisted with this article.