Local Politics: Poverty is about economics, not sociology

Rob Moore
Abandoned property in Linden

Last month, the Franklin County Board of Commissioners approved a $260,000 contract with a Tennessee consulting firm to study poverty in the county.

First, bravo for research. Ohio is a state with abundant resources, strong universities and a large, diverse population with its fair share of challenges, including poverty, inequality, human development and well-being gaps. Despite this fact, there are very few local governments and analysts in Ohio taking an objective look at how to solve these problems, leaving most of that work to lobbyists and entrenched interests.

More studies like this should be welcomed by the public.

That being said, a study is only as good as the theory that undergirds it. Unfortunately, “poverty” has become a catch-all term to describe a host of social ills ranging from crime to poor health to issues in the education system.

While these are all issues Franklin County should be working to address, an effective strategy to address poverty itself means defining it in a way that is measurable and subject to public policy intervention.

Luckily, we already have some pretty solid definitions of poverty available to us. The official federal poverty level comes out to an annual income of about $24,000 for a family of four. The census bureau's supplemental poverty measure, which factors in geographic differences, places that same family's poverty level in the Columbus metro area at $25,000.

Besides these standard measures of poverty, researchers are also interested in similar measures to understand the extent of poverty. “Deep poverty” is defined as half the federal poverty level, so about $12,000 for a family of four. “Extreme poverty” is a concept usually used in international development, but that has recently caught some attention in the United States. Extreme poverty has most famously been defined as people living on under $2 a day, or about $3,000 annually for a family of four.

Lastly, there is relative poverty. Relative poverty rates are tied to the median income, usually defined as people making less than one half the median income. In Franklin County, that would come out to about $27,000 in annual income for a family of four.

Notice that these definitions are economic, not sociological. While politicians and commentators have been trying to define poverty over the past 30 years as a cultural, psychological or social condition, at its very root poverty is a condition of not having the financial means to cover basic needs.

Policymakers often turn to these sociological definitions of poverty because in a way it lets them off the hook. While developing countries have been able to grow their way out of relative poverty, developed countries continue to exhibit persistent levels of poverty. And countries that have been able to reduce poverty levels have done so not through cultural shifts, but through more generous tax and transfer systems, which are harder to implement both politically and economically at the local level.

Those experiencing poverty in Franklin County will be much better served by a county that understands poverty is an economic issue, not a sociological one.