Underprivileged: Studying the Definition and Conscriptions of Poverty in America (by Krystal Moore)


How many times have you listened to a speech made by a politician talking about underprivileged America? Do you know what “underprivileged” means? According to the Good Word Guide it is “a fashionable adjective […] in connection with those lacking the standard of income and opportunities enjoyed by members of the societies in which they live.”  The word originally had its roots in the Great Depression era, and stood for a broader white community at its coinage than it has become today. According to Rawson’s Dictionary of Euphemisms and Other Double Talk, it has come to be a stand in for the black and Hispanic communities more often than not in speech, although is also used in international policy to mean any country that doesn’t meet the status of the UK, USA, China and Japan, which in itself says a lot considering the poverty rate in the US was over seventeen percent in 2013. How then does one quantify the term “underprivileged”? As stated by the George Warren Brown School of Social Work, “poverty and its measurement involve a degree of subjectivity. That is, despite the importance of well-grounded thinking, poverty is in the eye of the beholder.” Taking this in to account explains the varied use of underprivileged, but also this version leaves major gaps. For example, the hard working single mother with two jobs – she makes ends meet but only just. Is she underprivileged? What about the middle class person who only ever has $100 left at the end of their month. Are they also underprivileged? What about the people on food stamps or other need based aid programs?  What struggles does someone have to have to fall under this umbrella term, and is this definition too broad? I plan to show how this term can be detrimental to basic society and how it is misconstrued for political mean – arguably for social aid programs, something that seems to be a resounding issue that I have seen in my volunteer work, as they don’t seem to meet the grade. Many of the people who come to Salt Lake’s women’s shelter seem to be on some form of aid, but are not having their needs actually met.

The first aid topic I would like to cover is food stamps, Snap or TANIFF. According to the “The Cultural Reasons America’s Underprivileged Struggle with Nutrition” article on Huffington Post, one of the main struggles for the underprivileged individual is nutrition. Across America, those who are on government controlled social aid, still struggle to have enough money to be able to afford foods that encompass a wide enough variety of nutrients to be a viable health option. Most do not have enough money, or food stamps, to last the month living on foods that are subpar nutritionally. Food and health seem to be two main facets of what qualifies as “underprivileged” in America, along with the dollar amount of an individual’s income. In California the amount for a single person with no children is $194 in food stamps, which tends to run out around the middle of the month. A family of one parent and one child receives on average between $280 and $390, easier for economy meals. Note however, this is only food supplies, not basic home and health care needs, like shampoo or toilet paper, nor even food supplies like paper plates or other such utensils. Originally started in the 1930s as a relief and reward program by Henry Wallace, the plan for FSP, or Food Stamp Program, has changed drastically over the last forty five years. The blueprint was originally a set of two colored stamps. The first set was bought in place of normal food buying. For every dollar spent on the stamps, which were exchanged for food goods, a blue stamp was earned. The difference was that the orange stamps were used like normal money and could buy anything, whereas the blue only worked on USDA selected and approved foods, much like the idea of rations in the 1940s (FNS). Since this starting process it has grown into a state funded process were the amount each person receives is based on individual income and need.  The first data taken for SNAP benefits was in 1969 and it was estimated that 2,878 tousand people participated at that time, with a national cost of $250.50 million dollars for the program, compared with the last available information of 2014 with 46,536 thousand people costing a grand total of $74,137.24 million. The difference in average benefits received is a change from $6.63 per person in 1969 to $125.35 in 2014. The data also shows larger amounts of people joining such aid programs after the 1980s, when the minimum wage was frozen.  Arguably, the minimum wage was never meant to be a living wage, but instead, according to the US Labor Department, a starting point to create fair and equal wages for labor in the US back in the late 1930s (pew research). There is a growing grassroots movement to jump start wages and thus end the dependency on tax supplied and state controlled aid programs like SNAP. Whether this works out in everyone’s favor remains to be seen but in cities that have increased minimum wage, such as Seattle, have seen both state dependency and unemployment drop, with unemployment by a nearly 17.46% drop (Forbes). It is believed that such policy should be followed by federal government to increase the savings on such programs, instead of cutting aid and making the lives of millions of families harder.

Aside from the intrinsic need to feed one’s body, there is the actual cost of healthcare, inclusive of general practitioner visits, lab fees, medicine and care, the costs are staggering for someone who may not fit into the boxes used to decide who gets healthcare and medical cost aid and who does not.  For instance, while in California visiting family I had a UTI to treat. I went to the ER at 11 pm to see a doctor for my ailments. That one visit alone cost $1200, nearly half of which was in urinary analysis. How thankful I was to have had insurance to cover it. A trip to the doctor for my niece cost nearly 100 for check-up. Doctors’ care is a costly sum, and, until the passage of the affordable care act, many went without normal regular wellness checks, because they could not afford it in their monthly budgets, having already to struggle with rent, food, and other basic life needs.  In relation to the Affordable care act there has been an 11% increase of insured individuals who previously had had no medical coverage of any kind (DiscovertheNetworks). In addition to the insurgence of newly covered individuals there has been an increase of expanded insured, or those with nominal coverage getting better and more inclusive plans at a lower or equal cost. This has led to more findings of treatable diseases and coverage, specifically of diabetes which has seen a rise of 23%, most of whom now have access to affordable means to treat such diseases without worry of cost (LA Times). It has also led to better neonatal care for low income families and better health for developing children, with less reliance on state funds for aid options such as First Five, letting some organizations move those funds to other areas of need not covered by the ACA or other such policies or organizations. Many of the women I meet with have aid that covers healthcare but at a severe disadvantage. Either something isn’t covered or the what is covered is hard to obtain, keaving many women and children without coverage of some kind.

Lastly, let us not forget the current trend of rental pricing in America. In Utah, where I live, one can breathe a little easier on this score. Affordable homes are easier to find here, however the case is not so elsewhere. My sister, in Los Angeles, pays nearly the same $1600 a month that I do here, however hers is a two bedroom apartment with no amenities, where as I have a four bedroom home with yard, garage, and in-home laundry. Add in the use of bedroom taxes and laws, and homes become a real hardship, laws written to prevent the overcrowding of the ‘30’s in many areas. However, if there is a family that has too many heads, they need more space, which costs more money, something already being struggled with.  There are aid programs for these sorts of situations, one being Social Security homes, which are for the individual who is dependent on government checks to get by, usually these homes are run down or have some sort of in home-aid worker program for health or hospice need. Then, there are Section 8 homes, although the wait in California currently stands at 16 years for entry into such homes which are not always in the safest of places. After the economic collapse in 2008, 2009 and 2010 saw very small amounts of such housing types being built around the country with construction coming to a trickle while the economy was bolstered, when coupled with the recent need of these types of places, the demand is too high for a supply to be met. Currently there does not seem to be any movement to increase the availability, although it seem Los Angeles at least in looking to try and decrease rent prices to a more sane and attainable level, although there seems to be a disconnect between city officials and the actual numbers (LA Curbed).  This is probably the biggest issue faced by the people I have volunteerd with. They have no housing, or are crammed into hotels with bad neighborhoods or dirty rooms to live. Granted, here in Salt Lake the local government is doing its best to find homes for those without and change this around. It is one of the bigger initiatives in legislature at present. The idea being to take empty homes and give them to people without a home, thus weeding out the homeless and giving them safe havens of their very own while filling homes that otherwise would fall to the wayside and become derelict.

There are lots of mitigating factors as to why homelessness and poverty exist in the US, and while some are still the old adages of mental health care being ill equipped to handle the mentally ill, an idea I grew up on living a few miles from skid row in Los Angeles, famous for depraved acts and the homeless encampments located in the small area. The national Coalition states nearly a quarter of all homeless suffer from some form of mental illness. Again, the programs to help this category of underprivileged America are slim and scattered as far as a definitive line of treatment or combative response to the issue at hand, passing from federal to county legislatures. It seems there is a large crack to fall into here and no real investigative steps have been taken to find a way to close the gap. Also, there is a widening chasm opening under the middle class worker in America, with the earthquake of the 2004 and 2008 economic recessions being viewed as in the past, but the aftershocks still being felt by the largest working force America has had in a long time. The problem really can be viewed as a culmination of previous cuts to healthcare, the Regan era minimum wage freeze locking people into much lower wage structures, the absence of a living wage guarantee, and the closing of factories, businesses, and the advance of technologies making line work, once America’s main source of manufactured goods and labor, a thing of the recent past. All these factors coming together require more acceptances of general aid programs for American workers, once blue collar and middle class, and suddenly swimming in debt and being classified as the “working poor”, defined as people who spend 27 weeks or more in a year working but falling economically under the poverty line (UC Davis). With more and more of the workforce focused solely on “making it” each month, the spending is kept very close to the chest, therefore, a lot of money is not being spent on local businesses, or stimulating economic growth as in previous eras. Luckily, there seems to be some hope as most of the candidates for the 2016 Presidential Election have some form of plan to generate job growth and economic spending, with a focus being on the working class, specifically wage raises and benefits for working mothers, although, it is much too early in the race to make any substantive suggestions or predictions on these plans.

The universal truth of poverty, as spoken by Gandhi, is that in any country well governed poverty is shameful. So it seems to finally be dawning on the powers that be in America, as a magnifying glass has been focused on the economy’s effect on the common worker, and the wage gap in America that is killing off the middle class. Some movements such as Occupy Wall Street, as well as the March for Fifteen, have brought this to the forethought of the American populace and this regard for wages and economic stability seem to be starting to make changes in city, state, and federal consciousness to help level off the amount of people considered to be destitute or underprivileged. Economically, and generally speaking, a populace with money to spend creates a stronger economy, which creates more jobs, which employs more people and so on.  Hopefully this trend of change continues.

How to Get Involved

If you are interested in helping, you can become involved in the enrichment of the lower classes of the impoverished in your communities in many ways, including volunteering and donations. My suggestions based on my time this semester are to think outside the box for donations, if you go that route. I would suggest things like toiletries, blankets, towels, and hygiene products. However, the main way you can help your fellow man who has fallen on harder times, is by voting, and by concentrating on initiatives that will help lift him out of his impoverished life and get him back on his feet to meeting the standards of living expected by society at large. I encourage everyone to try and help each other with love, compassion, and empathy.

What the Research Says

Rawson’s Dictionary of Euphemisms and Other Double Talk  2002 Chicago, IL, Hugh Rawson

2007 M. Manser, M. Manser, and M. Manser (eds) Good Word Guide London, United Kingdom. A and C Black

Peele, Stanton “The Cultural Reasons America’s Underprivileged Struggle with Nutrition.” The Huffington Post 10/28/2011 Web 05/06/2015

Porter, Eduardo “Inequality in America: The Data Is Sobering” NewYorkTimes.com The New York Times  07/30/2013 Web 05/04/2015

“A Short History of SNAP” FNS.USDA.GOV November  2014 Web 05/28/2015Desilver, Drew “5 Facts about the Minimum Wage” Pew Research Group PewResearch.com 5/20/2015 Web 05/25/2015

Worstall, Tim “We Are Seeing The Effects of Seattle’s $15 An Hour Minimum Wage” Forbes Forbes.com 03/16/2015 Web 05/30/2015

“Obamacare: Before and After” DiscoverthNetworks.org 2014 web 05/29/2015

Kudler, Adrian Glick “Los Angeles Has the Biggest Disconnect in the US Between Wages and Rents” LA Curbed La.Curbed.com 02/10/15 Web 05/27/15

“Mental Illness and Homlessness” National Coalition for the Homeless NationalHomeless.org July 2009 Web 05/30/2015

“Who Are the Working Poor?” Center for Poverty Research, UC Davis poverty.ucdavis.edu/faq/who-are-the-working-poor Web 05/28/2015

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “A Profile of the Working Poor”, 2012, BLS Report 1047. U.S. Government Printing Office, 2013 PDF 05/28/2015

Annotated Sources

Desilver, Drew “5 Facts about the Minimum Wage” Pew Research Group PewResearch.com 5/20/2015 Web 05/25/2015

  • A great PEW article on the state of minimum wage today and in recent history – full of facts on policy too. I used it to study how minimum wage changes over time have affected the need for aid programs, as the two go hand in hand.

“A Short History of SNAP” FNS.USDA.GOV November  2014 Web 05/28/2015

  • A very informative read if you are interested in the history of social aid programs in America. The article explains in a detailed timeline how social aid programs for food started and evolved over the last 80 years.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “A Profile of the Working Poor”, 2012, BLS Report 1047. U.S. Government Printing Office, 2013 PDF 05/28/2015

  • This was relied on heavily, I found myself engrossed. I highly suggest it to anyone who wants to understand what it means to be working poor in America, not a new idea as it turns out. This is merely a PDF of Labor Department studies on the lowest wage earning working citizens and has a complete definition of what working poor really means. Introduction

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