A Better Definition of Poor

Much has been made over the centuries of Christ’s statement in Matthew 26:11 that we “will always have the poor”. Some take this to mean that lifting people out of poverty is doomed to fail, since Christ said it wouldn’t work. I do not believe this was a prophecy, however, so much as a statement of fact. People lived/live in poverty in every time and culture.

I’m guessing that most of us would be able to define poor if we saw it, but a standard definition is very hard to come by. Beyond that, we have those with a vested interest in keeping the number of poor people as high as possible. Dan Mitchell points this out with reference to the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development).

Mr. Mitchell’s “Eighth Theorem of Government” is worth pondering:

People who focus on poverty want the poor to do better.

People who focus on inequality want government to get bigger.

I think that setting the poverty level at some arbitrary percentage, as the OECD does, is horrible in practice. But then, most organizations which are set up to fight poverty do so with a known handicap. After all, they don’t wish to actually defeat poverty, because that would do away with the organization’s raison d’etre. This holds true for government agencies (such as Housing and Urban Development) as well.

To truly help the poor to do better, we need to start with a better definition of poor/poverty. I’m not at all certain that setting it at a percentage of something is particularly useful. The broader we make the definition, the greater percentage of the population fall into that category. Currently, the official numbers have more than 11% of the US population living in poverty. That’s some 37 million people.

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