Folks such as myself think poverty, and the people experiencing it, are often mischaracterized. Sometimes it’s a failure to distinguish between absolute (in any context) and relative (contextual) forms. Other times those differences are recognized, but primarily to use the former to delegitimize the later. The most consistent attitudes I encounter are fallacies of composition, or where people construct a perception of poverty based on observations of one part — usually stereotypes. Whatever the type of misconception, there are many.
This is backdrop for Mark Rank’s opinion piece in the New York Times (emphasis in bold mine):
Contrary to popular belief, the percentage of the population that directly encounters poverty is exceedingly high. My research indicates that nearly 40 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 60 will experience at least one year below the official poverty line during that period ($23,492 for a family of four), and 54 percent will spend a year in poverty or near poverty (below 150 percent of the poverty line).
Put simply, poverty is a mainstream event experienced by a majority of Americans. For most of us, the question is not whether we will experience poverty, but when.
I think the broader strokes Rank paints in the end, aiming for solidarity, are admirable. It’s true that poverty as an aggregate condition is not some autonomous phenomenon; it affects everyone. The scale we’re discussing, using Rank’s numbers, should make this easier to elucidate. When it comes to poverty and people, stereotypes seem to thrive on marginalizing folks into homogeneous categories. This necessarily shrinks the possibility for wider verstehen, both in the sense that it enables some to keep being dismissive and others to continue simplifying (or romanticizing) their idea of ‘who’ is poor. Recasting those images as people who are as diverse and complex as the 50 percent making more than $30,000 a year could reduce barriers. Maybe then we could have that conversation about poverty being a choice, just not the type that is popularly raised.