Drawing the poverty line at a cultural subsistence level
Two years before the beginning of “The War on Poverty,” David Hamilton entered the debate regarding the meaning of poverty. He explores the classical meaning of the term derived from early economic writers from Adam Smith to Karl Marx who argued that competition for jobs in capitalism tended to push wages to a subsistence level. He notes that typically this referred to a standard of living sufficient for the laborers to subsist and perpetuate themselves as a race. Marx added to this level of sufficiency the ability to “live in a normal state as a laboring individual” and argued that the level needed to do so was affected by the climate and “the degree of civilization of a country.” Anything below this level was considered poverty. Hamilton discusses B. S. Rountree’s attempt to classify poverty by looking at actual consumption of goods and services sufficient to maintain physical efficiency. This was an early attempt to define an absolute standard of poverty. Hamilton discusses further efforts in this direction in the United States by employing so-called emergency budgets. But he notes that all efforts to establish a minimum level of subsistence below which absolute poverty lies seem arbitrary, as do all measures of relative poverty. Measures of relative poverty designate some percentage of the income distribution, say the bottom 10 percent, and people living below this level are considered to be living in poverty. This is arbitrary, because no matter how high the standard of living of the bottom group, they are by definition living in poverty. Hamilton notes that neither absolute nor relative definitions of poverty are adequate. He notes that relative definitions are arbitrary and that earlier attempts at absolute definitions have failed to define a level based upon physical and biological requirements. He notes that the latter attempts fail because they are based on the mythical notion of an individual living in a state of nature. Human beings always live in social cultural groups. Consequently, their ability to survive, subsist, or thrive is dependent on their ability to function in that culture.