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By Kathryn Hazelett

Nearly 225,000 families live below the poverty line in Arkansas and Mississippi.[1] While we hear and talk about poverty a lot, we’re not always talking the same language. This is the first post in a series looking at how we define poverty, how we talk about it, how we think about it, and how we measure it. Let’s start with a definition.

When I was a kid, we had a set of encyclopedias that lived in the hallway between my room and my sister’s room. I remember them being full of information on every topic. It was the 1980’s version of the internet, but without spellcheck and trolls. Sometimes, I still hop over to the internet version of this analog resource for basic facts. That’s what I did today, and here’s what Encyclopedia Britannica had to say about poverty: “[It] is said to exist when people lack the means to satisfy their basic needs.”

Don’t you love it when a definition leaves you with more questions after you’ve looked it up?

My main question is: what are basic needs?

As I’ve been teaching my daughter the value of money, we’ve been talking about needs vs. wants. She takes care of the things that she wants for herself with her allowance (and tooth fairy money) and I handle her needs – in our family, this is everything from healthy meals and doctor visits to safe housing and transportation to school supplies and presents for friends’ birthday parties.

Here’s where things can get fuzzy. How do we determine which needs are basic needs? Are schools supplies a basic need? The modern equivalent of encyclopedias? What about a present for a friend when you’ve been invited to a party? Is being safe a basic need?

The general view is that we only NEED the following things to survive – that these comprise our basic needs:

  • Shelter
  • Enough food and water to maintain our health
  • Basic health care and hygiene products
  • Clothing (what we need to remain comfortable and appropriately dressed)

School supplies definitely don’t fit within any of these categories, but does my daughter need her school supplies? Will there be crayons and pencils for her if she doesn’t bring them? What will her schoolmates think if she doesn’t have an eraser or she doesn’t bring a backpack? Will she be teased? Left out? Made to feel “other?”

While needs vs basic needs can appear to be clear cut when we’re making a list of them, in real life, it’s much more difficult.

Defining poverty as lacking the means to satisfy our basic needs gives us a very barebones definition. If a family only has the means to satisfy their basic needs, so many needs are left unfulfilled.

In psychology, there’s a very famous hierarchy of needs (pictured as a pyramid with levels) that includes safety and security among basic needs. What’s right above those needs on this hierarchy includes a feeling of belonging (that feeling that you risk not having if, for instance, you didn’t have school supplies). The most interesting thing to me about this hierarchy is that “needs lower down in the hierarchy must be satisfied before individuals can attend to needs higher up.” And, those higher up needs include “achieving our full potential.”

Perhaps the way we define poverty should include more than just our basic needs. After all, almost every parent will tell you that they want their child to be able to be their best self. For that, they need not only their basic needs, but safety and a sense of belonging. Needs are larger than just food, shelter, clothing, and health care. Our definition should reflect that.   

[1] U.S. Census Bureau, “S1702: Poverty Status in the Past 12 Months of Families, 2013-2017 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates.” 2017.