Poverty, destitution, indigence, scarcity - these words suggest an image of economic disadvantage and lack of financial resources. Most social welfare discussions of poverty reflect this perception. Typically, the use of the term poverty references directly or indirectly the official federal policy notion of the poverty threshold or guidelines. These guidelines carry precise dollar amounts: $15,150 for a family of four, for example, in 1995.
In recent years, analyses of poverty have become increasingly narrow, often leading to a focus on conventional images of public assistance. Poverty means more than "the condition or quality of being poor; need; indigence; lack of means of subsistence." It also means "deficiency in necessary properties or desirable qualities, or in a specific quality, etc." (Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary). Being impoverished, then, is more than lacking financial means. Poverty is an overall condition of inadequacy, lacking, and scarcity. It is destitution and deficiency of economic, political, and social resources. As such, millions of people in this country are impoverished socially, politically, and economically. This broader perspective reflects the true dimensions of poverty.
Because discussions of poverty over the last decade have primarily been concerned with the extent of financial need of some members of society, important discourse has been missing. Social scientists must expand the realm of poverty research and discourse in order to truly evaluate all the factors which contribute to the well-being of society. There are numerous forms of poverty, including social and political dimensions. Social poverty includes the lack of educational opportunity and the lack of access to healthcare. Political poverty exists where civil rights are denied and political power rests in the hands of a few people. Even economic poverty is broader than lack of finances. It includes a lack of employment opportunities and uneven distribution of resources.
Why have discussions of poverty been narrowly defined? There are several reasons. First is the driving force of capitalism. In order for capitalism to survive and flourish, there needs to be a ready pool of laborers prepared to take low wages in order to have work. In this way, the industrial classes do not have to pay high wages and instead are able to accumulate wealth without sharing it with their workers. Social Darwinism furthers the differences between those who are economically advantaged and those who are not. By adapting the biological premise of survival of the fittest, the assumption is that those who are in power and control economic resources are there because they are "better fit" than those who are not. Conversely, those who are poor are there because they are less adept at survival and success in our society. Both of these reasons allow those who benefit from the current state of affairs to feel justified in their wealth and means. The current system maintains the advantages of the privileged, and, not surprisingly, they resist change and favor the status quo.
This Journal presents a conception of poverty that is broader and more inclusive than the traditional view. We cannot address impoverishment in this country if we exclude social and political inequalities. To ignore how people are marginalized from social and political participation is to ignore one of the critical ingredients of economic poverty. For example, recent debates regarding welfare reform do not reflect the social, emotional, or broader economic needs of people receiving public assistance. A significant part of the debate centers on who should pay, state or federal governments. The debate is concerned about how long a person can receive public assistance. No attention is given to people's needs for education, employment, safe and affordable housing, nutrition, adequate medical, and other social and political needs. The profound impact of powerful social forces has faded from political rhetoric, and inequalities due to race, sex, religion, sexual orientation, disability, etc., are largely ignored or discounted or trivialized by public and social scientific leaders in this society.
If we, as researchers, teachers, social service providers, clients, activists, and public citizens, do not push the boundaries of debate, who will? The jobs of policy makers and politicians are much easier with a narrow focus. Difficult realizations must be addressed when impoverishment is viewed from multiple and overlapping perspectives. There are no simple answers. Understanding poverty in the broadest sense requires recognition of inequalities in our social, political, and economic structures. This recognition can be uncomfortable and formidable, but we must try. This journal is intended to broaden our thinking and to encourage others to join in the discussion.