“1. Lacking the means of a comfortable subsistence; possessing little or no property or income; indigent; opposed to rich.
4. lacking in good qualities, or the qualities that render a thing valuable, or sufficient for it’s purpose; ill; bad.”
For the word poor there are further specific meanings provided for definition #4, such as deficient in vigor, unhealthy, uncomfortable, feeble, devoid of merit, unsatisfactory, lacking in strength or efficiency, weak, sterile, scanty, wanting in spirit, cowardly. Definition #6 is deserving of pity, and #7 is miserable.
Thus, reducing poverty means reducing the number of people who lack property or income, and a comfortable/healthy/good life requires property and/or income.
So, poor people lack property and/or income, and thus lack value, worth, health and good qualities.
Usages of the word poor to denote lack of good qualities is still prevalent in modern English vernacular, (ie ‘a poor substitute for…’) and thus cannot be without subtle insinuations about the people that the word is used to refer to.
What is there to do about this, being simply the first of many misnomers, diversions, insinuations, and propaganda that have impacted media coverage of poverty?
Let’s see what my dictionary offers as synonyms to poverty.
“Poverty denotes a condition below that of easy, comfortable living. Privation denotes a condition of painful lack of what is useful or desirable, though not to the extent of absolute distress; indigence is lack of ordinary means of subsistence; Destitution is lack of the comforts and in part even the necessities of life. Penury is especially cramping poverty, possibly not so sharp as destitution, but continuous, while that may be temporary; Pauperism is such destitution as throws one upon public charity for support. beggary and mendicancy denotes poverty that appeals to indiscriminate charity.”
The last two terms I take it refer to the unworthy poor. Pauperism is destitution of the worthy poor, and so I won’t be using any of these three words, as they belong to the idea that there are some worthy of help and care, and others who are not.
By these standards however, poverty can be anything from simply not having an easy comfortable living to being in distressful destitution. That an easy comfortable living is at the high end of the definition,when coupled with the insinuation that poverty is a life without value, can insinuate that anything below an easy, comfortable way of living is without value or meaning. This might explain why the dominant culture treats it’s comfort and convenience as a vital imperative, a manifest destiny. Poverty, as this definition implies, teaches us that a life without comfort and convenience is a life without value and we must work hard to avoid such a horrible fate.
The dictionary also states that poverty is opposed to rich. When a government or a political party or policy advocate works to reduce poverty, they work to increase wealth, to grow the economy, to allow more opportunities for citizens to access the means for an easy, comfortable life. (Those are at least the honest intentions of some. Others can reasonably be accused of not caring about poverty or poor people and deliberately creating and supporting harmful, exploitive, destructive policy, simply for the benefit of the rich. We’ll ignore them for now, however.)
To be anti-poverty is to take the growth of the economy as a given, one might reasonably conjecture. An anti-poverty agenda thus supports the growth of the economy to the point where less and less people lack the means for easy, comfortable living.
Personally, I don’t take the growth of the economy as a given. In fact, I believe economic growth requires ecocidal and toxic-pollution-creating extraction of non-renewable resources, exploitation, slavery and war. So I don’t subscribe to the program of poverty reduction espoused by socialists, whereby workers take control of the means of production and redistribute wealth. I subscribe more to anarchist tendencies in believing that systems of colonialism/imperialism/racism/sexism/patriarchy as manifested today in the global industrial economy, creates the conditions for poverty, and that lack of necessities, dignity, respect and care cannot be reduced to lack of money, but must be considered as part of a deeper condition, a condition that the economic system, colonialism and capitalism are reflections of.
Like a lot of the ways that humans deal with problems, sometimes even the most well-intentioned people are preconditioned by the dominant culture to subscribe to solutions that seem to make one problem better, but which make other problems worse.
I recently heard it said that capitalism doesn’t solve it’s problems, it just moves them around geographically. Poverty reduction based on the performance of a national economy in a competitive global world means there will be losers elsewhere if we are to win and achieve ‘poverty reduction’ here.
This is not to suggest that anti-poverty activists abandon the words poor and poverty, just that we consider that power and meaning of the words we use, and that perhaps as we explore this issue of poverty in the media, we create a new vernacular that can tell our stories more accurately.