What does ‘poverty’ really mean?

asnow@newsobserver.comFebruary 15, 2014 

Almost every day we read or hear about poverty.

Have you ever been poor? Or thought you were? There’s a difference, you know.

The word poverty has several dictionary definitions. One reads: the state of being extremely poor. Another defines poverty as: inferior in quality or insufficient.

According to the U.S. Census, 16 percent of North Carolinians live in poverty. That’s defined as having an annual income of $23,050 or less for a family of four. A starting teacher’s pay in North Carolina is only $7,000 or so above the poverty level.

As a youngster during the Great Depression, I sometimes thought we were poor.

As in most farm families, tobacco was our sole source of cash.

I remember the day my Dad returned from the Winston-Salem tobacco market where a truckload of the leaf we had worked so hard to produce brought only 19 cents a pound. When he handed my mother the small handful of bills, she wept.

On the way home, Dad had stopped at a place that distributed bags of flour to the needy. As he started in the door with it, my mother said, “Byrd Winfield Snow, don’t bring that into this house!” There was no poverty of family pride.

For several days thereafter, until Dad could trade some corn for flour with a neighbor, we ate cornbread for breakfast instead of the mouth-watering biscuits my mother usually served. That was one of the few times we children felt poor.

I recently came across a poignant definition of true poverty written by Ruth Moose of Albemarle. Ruth, author and former teacher of creative writing at UNC, observed poverty first-hand when she traveled Appalachia, teaching writing in the area schools.

“Poverty smells like a kerosene stove,” Ruth wrote. “It feels like wearing someone else’s clothes. It hurts like walking in shoes that fit someone else first. It tastes and looks like liver-mush.

“Poverty is always being on the edge of good things going on. You are never allowed to join in. You don’t ask even for events that are free. You stand in the shadows and accept, and that’s the worst poverty of all – accepting. For, you see, poverty is the color of a bruise; it’s a birthmark on your soul.”

Only those who have known raw poverty can fully appreciate Ruth’s description of the real thing.

Frank McCourt, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Angela’s Ashes,” also describes in heart-rending detail what growing up poor in Ireland was like. McCourt’s was a nightmarish kind of “poor” that, among other things, claimed the lives of his baby sister and toddler twin brothers, who died from starvation and lack of medical attention.

During World War II, when his father was leaving Ireland to work in a British munitions factory, McCourt’s mother had miraculously procured an egg for the father’s farewell breakfast:

“Dad peels off the shell. He slices the egg five ways and gives each of us a bit to put on our bread. Mam says, ‘Don’t be such a fool.’

“Dad says, ‘What would a man be doing with a whole egg to himself?’ Mam has tears on her eyelashes.”

I was once talked into going with relatives to Dollywood for a weekend. While there, we attended a Dolly Parton concert. Dolly Parton can tell you something about poverty. One of 12 children, she and her family lived in a two-bedroom house.

“We were dirt poor!” she said. “I never slept alone until I was 18, when I graduated from high school and left home. We usually slept three or four to a bed.”

Later during the concert, her brother joined her in a duet. As he walked off the stage amid a rousing round of applause, Miss Parton yelled, “He peed on me!”

As we read of and view on TV examples of extreme poverty around the world, we realize that eating cornbread for breakfast, living without an iPhone or sleeping four to a bed isn’t really being “dirt poor” or living in the kind of poverty Ruth Moose described.

Snow: 919-836-5636 or

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