After I published a post on poverty yesterday a friend raised an important question: just what is poverty level anyway?
The Department of Health and Human Services provides the answer: For one person, poverty level is $11,170. For households of three people, it’s $19,090 and for a family of four it’s 23,050. The link at the beginning of this paragraph includes poverty levels for families of up to eight people.
Those are pretty low income levels, especially for families. And keep in mind that nearly a third of the people in Provo are making at or below those levels.
Understandably, when people hear that there is a lot of poverty in their community they want to explain it. In addition to explanations relating to students, I’ve also heard people mention factors such as low income housing in Provo and even “a lot of babies.”
Some of these explanations are clearly red herrings. Babies, for example, aren’t counted as no-wage earners. But many explanations are useful for understanding how to fix problems and improve cities — something I haven’t arrived at yet in this series on wealth.
But for now, I want to resist the urge to explain the causes of these numbers. Instead, I’m just focusing on the fact that Provo has 115,321 people — young, old, student, professional, unemployed, whatever — and that on average those people make less money than their counterparts in other cities. That fact has an impact on the local economy. Period.
The problem I have with explanations is that they seem to implicitly take communities off the hook. When someone says, “but Provo really is more like Boulder than the numbers suggest,” or “yeah, but it’s [fill in the demographic] that unfairly skews Provo’s numbers,” it sounds like an excuse to either do nothing, or to make changes — Add more shops! Make downtown prettier! — that don’t address the underlying disparity between regions. In the end, if the numbers were skewed or misleading, downtown wouldn’t be as challenged as it is.
Ultimately, there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of reasons that incomes and poverty levels here are higher. They’re good excuses.
But that doesn’t change the fact that if you’re a person making $35,000 a year you’re probably going to eat out less often than someone making $50,000. You’ll buy less art and attend live theater less often. You can’t remodel your house as extensively or as soon. Places like the Covey Center, The Echo Theatre, Communal, Station 22, and every other consumer business in downtown suffers as a result.