Are you poor?

We talk about the poor and rich and middle class and can even classify people into those categories based on metrics such as income and wealth. But if we ask people directly to describe themselves, my guess is that fewer than we expect will describe themselves as currently being poor. This is because the subjective and objective interpretations of the word are quite different.

When we evaluate our own lives, we see them holistically, not just in terms of income or wealth, and in comparison to those immediately around us. If our lives are comparable to those of our extended families or others in our neighborhood, we may not think of ourselves as poor. If we have some level of education and live a simple lifestyle that does not seek luxuries, we may not see ourselves as poor. Also, if you see your current circumstances as temporary, say because you just lost your job, and expect things to improve in the future, you may not describe yourself as poor, as this cartoon illustrates.

Coupled with the fact that the poor are so stigmatized in the US and are often described as moochers, people may shy away from describing themselves as poor and instead describe their circumstances as ‘difficult’ or a ‘struggle’ or some other euphemism.

The exception to this aversion is when people are no longer poor but look back retrospectively. Then people may even go out of their way to describe themselves as poorer than they actually were, in order to suggest that they are somehow meritorious for having overcome early hardship and made something of their lives. Politicians in particular seem to take pride in describing themselves as poor when they were young and love to talk about having hard backgrounds, even embellishing their history to make it seem worse than it really was, and now reveling in the fact, when during that time they may have tried to hide it as much as possible.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    Remember Sarah Palin’s yarns of her rugged childhood, when her parents would sneak the family across the border into Canada to get health care?

    Now that’s how a Real American™ overcomes hardships!

  2. flex says

    I’ve considered for some time (since a course in human behaviors in business school), whether the mobility American’s generally enjoy for the location of their homes might have an adverse affect of preventing people from accurately assessing their relative wealth.

    In other words, the course in b-school indicated that it was well-documented that people purchase houses in sub-divisions which are largely populated by people with a little more income then the buyer currently has. With the expectation that the buyer’s income will rise a little. So there is a normal distribution within a community with a mean and a fairly small standard deviation. A person moving into the community might start at the low end of the distribution, but over time will rise to through the mean to the higher end. At that point, if they are still advancing in income, they will move to a new sub-division to be with their peers in income level.

    The affect of this on a person’s perception of their relative income is to suggest to them that everyone is making roughly the same amount that they are. Sure, they know that there are communities filled with people who make more, and they know there are communities where people make less. But all their friends, their children’s friends, the other parents they meet at little league or hockey, almost everyone they socialize with are in the same income level. So this income level appear to be the normal level, the middle level, to them.

    This results in people thinking that a $400,000/yr income is middle-class, because everyone they know is making in the same range.

    I’ve noticed that European cities, and the few trips I’ve made in SE Asia, that people tend to move homes less often. So one community might contain people who are wealthy and poor. Which allows people to more accurately assess their own income level in comparison to the (mythical) average person.

  3. says

    I could technically come up with 400 dollars out of savings to cover an emergency expense, but I could not do so twice, and doing it the first time would put me slightly behind on a yearly expense I would rather pay on time but that won’t have serious consequences if I am a week or two late. I am poor in Ireland. I was comfortable as a lower-middle in Texas, when I was working and my paycheck always exceeded my expenses, even the discretionary ones. But I feel richer here in Ireland, even though I am temporarily on public assistance, because I have enough to eat, a safe place to live, heating oil, many of my household goods shipped over from America, and a medical card that pays for if I get sick. To be sure I don’t have the money for a vacation or to eat out or to buy everything I want anymore. But I still feel calmer and better able to take care of myself. And I can look for a job that fits my skills and aptitudes, not just a desperation job I can’t do well due to my health.

  4. Mano Singham says


    I imagine that people living in a country that has a much better safety net than the US would need to be much further down the economic ladder than in the US to feel that they are poor. Feeling poor is to some extent living in fear of not having the basic necessities.

  5. moarscienceplz says

    The Republican narrative is that all of us who amount to anything are completely self-made. One of our greatest Democratic chairmen, Bob Straus, used to say that every politician wants you to believe he was born in a log cabin he built himself. As Straus then admitted, it ain’t so.

    Bill Clinton, during Obama’s 2nd nomination.

  6. mnb0 says

    I’m a perfect example of your argument.
    My net income is about 900 USD per month (exchange rate of today). In my native country, The Netherlands, I would be poor (minimum income is almost 1000 Euro). Still I manage to save about 1/3 of my income ….. And I own a house without mortgage.
    Oh and my health care is reasonably covered. When well educated it’s not too bad living in the developing country Suriname.

  7. Dunc says

    It also depends a lot on what your comparison points are… From the point of view of most of my friends, I’m pretty well off. From the point of view of most of my professional colleagues, I’m comfortable enough, but pretty careful with my money. For the point of view of a fairly typical dual-income upper-middle class family, I’m scraping by on a pittance. From the point of view of a 1%er, I’m a pauper.

  8. hyphenman says


    I grew up in Appalachia in what might be called lower middle class. I never thought of myself as poor, but compared to my students today I would have been positively destitute. I got tennis shoes for gym class and three pairs of jeans and three shirts for school each fall. I didn’t get an allowance, I didn’t buy a car until I was 26 and I paid for my college education by serving 11 years in the military. I shared a bedroom with my brother and though I never missed a meal, we did have pancakes for dinner occasionally. I had friends who were not so fortunate.

    During two tours of duty in the Western Pacific and Indian oceans I got a hard look at what I call poverty: children less than five years of age begging on the streets, families living without clean water or even rudimentary sanitary facilities in huts that would make an American homeless person shudder and boys and girls prostituting themselves for pennies.

    The vast number of Americans don’t have a clue.


  9. says

    I was discussing voter ID laws with a cow orker today, nice lady in general but politically conservative; she was all in favour, while I was saying they’re largely unnecessary but if you must have them you need to make sure everyone has the ability to obtain one of the necessary forms of ID.

    She seemed incapable of realizing that this was a non-trivial exercise for many people, even though we live in a State (South Carolina) where it is common for poor people (especially older ones) to have been born at home and lack a birth certificate, and to lack transportation to the appropriate offices even if they had all the paperwork. She insisted that “If they really want to vote they’ll find a way.”

    I tried to point out that the First Law Of Poverty (which I put into words on the spot) is “Just because you need something doesn’t mean you’ll get it.” I pointed out that poor people die in this country all the time because they can’t buy medication they need, and had to explain that no, you can’t actually for example get chemotherapy by going to the emergency room. It then morphed into a discussion of health care systems, wherein naturally she felt America’s was the best of the lot, even though most industrialized countries actually *won’t* let you die for lack of a standard treatment, while the American system will and does. “Oh, well, there’s programs.” What programs? “Churches. Charities.”

    She insisted that the American government already does too much for her fellow citizens, and it only encourages people to be lazy and not even try. She seemed to have the idea that every single case of unemployment was due to a lack of ambition, because people would rather let the government take care of them than look for work -- because naturally if you look for work you will find it, inevitably.

    It goes to show how conservative politics survive: an unwillingness to look at the ugly realities, because they threaten the illusions of a just world and American exceptionalism, leading to a demonization of the losers in the game so that you can identify with the winners.

  10. says

    I’m not fully sure I agree with that cartoon, though. Yeah, I could cover $400 without selling something. The exact amount fluctuates, which should be no surprise, getting as low as $500 at times, but I would still say I’m comfortable. But it is what I would sell that becomes a point of disagreement, which would be stocks that I own (valued near $7000). These aren’t stocks in a retirement account; these are stocks I have precisely for selling in case of emergency. According to that cartoon, though, I would not be living comfortably for needing to sell something.

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