US Government and its wars on ideas.

Much talk of late has been about how the War on Terrorism is a War on Ideas, and this can not be one. This may be true, but is not a given, nor is the first. We’ll look at the US Federal Government’s (FedGov) history with “War onX” where X is not a state or entity. This series will start with looking at the war on Poverty started by President Johnson, work it’s way through the War on Drugs, and ultimately the War on Terror.

Is Poverty an Idea?

The first question that needs to be addressed is whether or not the War on Poverty qualifies for discussion. First, the War is not on a declared entity, rather a phenomenon or concept. Poverty, whether defined absolutely or in relative terms is a concept – an idea. Poverty can not “surrender”. It is not a conscious entity and as such certainly quaifies for inclusion.

What is Poverty?

There are essentially two official definitions of poverty, and the public conception of poverty. On the official side there is “Relative Poverty” and “Absolute Poverty”. When you ask the “man on the street” the most specific response will usually be “those living below the poverty line”. In the US and possibly elsewhere, the perception is that being “poor” is the same as being impoverished. In order to have a fruitful discussion one must define one’s terms. For these purposes I’ll use the term poverty to be either Absolute or Relative depending on context.

Absolute Poverty

Absolute Poverty is used primarily by the United States. It is officially determined using the “Orshansky” method. This method determines what is needed for a nutritionally balanced and complete diet on an annual basis, and multiplies the cost of this diet by three. In modern times this is now tied to the CPI, Consumer Price Index.

This method is relatively simple to calulate, all you need are the numbers. There are two government calulations: the “official poverty levels” and the poverty guidlines put out by the DHHS. The guidlines are higher, and will thus be used in this article to illustrate the points. The current DHHS guideline numbers are $9800/year for the first person and 3400 for each additional person in the household. Now let us look at how this maps out to numbers we can relate to. First, a single person.

A single person wishing to live above the poverty line must make 9800/year. If we impute minimum wage currently at 5.15USD, this person needs to work for 1903 hours. If working a 40 hour workweek, this equates to working for 47.5 weeks per year, out of 52. On average a minimum wage worker (MWW) working 36.6 hours per week will be at or above the official poverty line. Though there is plenty to discuss at this point, we shall move on to additional household sizes for comparison. Suffice it to say that at federal minimum wage rates it is relatively easy for a MWW living alone to live above the poverty line.

Next we shall consider 2-person households. These households need to make 13,200 USD in order to not be out of poverty. Given the above figures one of two scenarios are required: The sole income producing agent must work either more than 40 hours/week or make more than MW. Consider a recently married person, where one person wishes to stay home. For sake of discussion I reference the traditional male aspect as the primary income agent. In order two work the same hours as before the marriage, our guy will have to make 6.40 USD per hour. In most major cities, this is fast food wages.

Alternatively, both members of the family could work part-time. If both members worked minimum wage and each worked the same number of hours they would each need to work for 1282 hours. Working full time (40h/w) for 32 weeks, or 25 hours/week every week, the two of them would meet or exceed poverty the line. Clearly, using MW, both members working at least part tiem of 25 hours/week would prevent the two from being considered impoverished. It is also possible in major cities that only a single member of the family needs to work to meet that requirement.

Moving up to the first birth we have a family of three. In order to meet the requirement of not being impoverished, the family now needs 16,600/year. For a single income agent this would mean full time work at 8.03 USD per hour. Certainly possible in major cities where call center jobs often start at around 10 USD/hour. Also possible if both members work full time. Child care would come into play in the latter scenario, though presumably this is part fo the calculation.

Jumping right to family of four, a single income agent will need to make 20,000 USD per year, or about 9.67/hour full time. Again, this is certainly possible in major cities with call center work going for 10-10.5/hour starting wage. It is also possible on several other avenues such as experienced food industry workers (pizza delivery, fast food store management, waitressing, bartending), mechanics, construction workers, and so on. Not every job pays that much, but most that don’t are for less experience required positions. If both parents are full-time MWW, they will also rise above poverty.

Bear in mind these are official poverty levels. I am not positing that these individuals and families would be living the good life, as it were. I am merely stating the fact that they would be above the poverty level as so defined. We’ll leave discussion of the implications for another portion.

Relative Poverty

Relative Poverty is largely a European construct, defined in the EU as “an income below 60 percent of the national median equalised disposable income after social transfers for a comparable household”. However, it can be generally stated as having significantly less access to income and wealth than other members of society”.

Relative poverty, therefore, has a much wider “wiggle room” for qualifying it. As such it is possible for one to be “impoverished” in one EU member state but not be considered impoverished in a neighboring EU member state. It is an important distinction that the EU uses Relative Poverty versus the US’ Absolute Poverty.

Part 1 Summary

In this part of the series we have our primary terms defined. We have the definitions used in this series for A War on an Idea, and for Poverty- Specifically Relative and Absolute Poverty. In the next article we will discuss some of the “weapons” used in this war.


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