Cape Town, South Africa

Cape Town, South Africa
Serving it up at Manenberg Primary!

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Wait, eggs cost THAT much? The Transformation of the Poverty Line

Hello everyone!

I hope this writing finds you in a place of peace and fulfillment. I am writing from the kitchen of my hostel, nibbling on toast with fichi (fig) marmalade and butter.

I'll be posting the final factors that influenced the development of the National School Lunch Program very soon, but first want to share an interesting nugget of information I learned about the other day. Don't worry, it's related to food and socioeconomic status (which is the epitome of the national school lunch program, right?).

This post is about the transformation of the primary contributor/indicator to the poverty line - from food to housing costs. In an earlier post, I mentioned that I worked at a legal aid firm that served clients in subsidized housing. From this work experience as well as from earlier volunteer experiences in Nashville, TN, I have become quite aware of how housing costs are a primary - if not the primary - contributor to poverty. It is generally known (and set by various housing acts passed by the US government) that individuals should not spend more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing. Spending over 30 percent often translates to inadequate funds for food, transportation, and other important needs (and less important needs, we all need to enjoy gelato every once in awhile...).

[Flavors here: chocolate raspberry and "American Peanut Butter." Why is peanut butter American, do you ask? Europeans consume less than a tablespoon of peanut butter a year - it simply isn't a part of the European diet ... which isn't great for me, who used to eat two jars of peanut butter a week...]

At my legal aid internship, I pulled data from MN court cases from 2014-2015 (Don't worry, this is public information - you could look this up as well!), and learned that a significant number individuals are spending over 60 percent of their income on housing.  When I looked into this further, a 2016 Harvard study showed that "the number of cost-burdened households rose by 3.6 million from 2008 to 2014, to 21.3 million ... [and] the number with severe burdens (paying more than 50 percent of income for housing) jumped by 2.1 million to a record 11.4 million" (Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, 6). Over 30 million Americans spend more than they should on housing, which places them at a higher risk for falling below or hovering at the poverty line. With less affordable housing being built and wages staying largely the same, I would argue that housing cost is the primary contributor to poverty.

[It also does not help that the rental properties being built are targeting people of higher SES. I've seen this in my hometown in Rochester MN; there are tons of houses and condos being built, but few of them are affordable for someone who makes minimum wage.]

However, it wasn't always that way.

Prior to the mid-1960s (and continuing on past the 1960s), the American "market basket," or the cost of basic food staples, indicated one's SES. Housing costs were less influential, as "the line between self-sufficiency and dependence for many families lay in the price of food" (Levine, 120). Can you believe that?!

In fact, the US Census Bureau created a formula to determine the poverty line - and the threshold was calculated at three times the cost of the minimum food diet in 1963 (Institute for Research on Poverty). This formula was used throughout the 20th century, and was only recently changed (as in, the last few years. Crazy, eh?).

This transformation is simply fascinating .. from one right (the right to have a home) to another right (the right to eat). I wonder what could take the place of housing in the future ... perhaps water (looking at you, Cali)?

PS - I had a really neat moment last night. I was getting gelato (I swear, I don't only eat gelato) with my friend, and while we were sitting on a bench, this very old woman (talking 80+ years old) slowly walked over and sat down next to us. Ten minutes after she sat down, I had this strange bout of coughing - I couldn't stop, and I had just finished my water. How I felt:

After 30 seconds of coughing, the old lady turned to us and said so softly, "[something in Italian I couldn't understand]." My friend responded by asking her to repeat, and instead of repeating herself, she reached into her bag and got out a honey lozenge for me. She beamed at me after I took it, and continued to speak with us. Good thing we all spoke German :)

[The honey lozenge given to me]

I am deeply humbled and gladdened by those moments when I am in a tough spot and am given a free, kind gift. Those gifts can come from anywhere - from a neighbor, a friend, or a total stranger who has an extra honey lozenge in her purse. I hope you can experience one of these gifts in the coming future - or, could start the trend by giving one today. 


Levine, Susan (2011). School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America's Favorite Welfare Program. Princeton University Press.

Institute for Research on Poverty.

No comments:

Post a Comment