News stories this week highlighted the issues of a growing "wealth gap" in the United States and a higher level of poverty discerned by a new method for measuring relative wealth.
A Census Bureau report, "The Research Supplemental Poverty Measure: 2010," expands on a September Census Bureau report that 46.2 million Americans were below the poverty line - a standard based on family size and income. The Supplemental Poverty Measure refines the standard for measuring poverty, a 1960s formula that takes the cost of the minimum adequate diet for a family and multiplies it by three to cover all family expenses.
The purpose of the poverty standard in 1960 was to provide a threshold from which families are qualified for governmental assistance. It remains the basis for assistance such as food stamps or rental support.
Supplemental Poverty Measure adjusts the data to reflect all costs for basic needs - including housing, utilities, transportation, child care and medical care - to determine that 49.1 million Americans were in poverty. It remains a resource for discussion and does not displace the standard for determining assistance.
The standards are inadequate but that is only part of the problem. Neither measurement deals with a primary issue of how to lift families out of poverty.
Americans have been divided on the issue.
A 2001 survey found an even split on responsibility for poverty - whether individuals are in poverty for circumstances beyond their control or through their own failings; 45 percent believing circumstances are the cause and 48 percent believing individuals don't do enough for themselves. ("Poverty in America," NPR online, May 2001, www.npr.org)
More recently, poverty has been associated with immigrants and stereotypes of illegal immigrants taking low-wage jobs, resulting in a political shift against government social services. Immigrants are taking lower-paying jobs, have lower incomes and thus are more likely to be recipients of government social services. At the same time, they are noncitizens with limited influence on political decisions. ("Polarized America," McCarty, Poole and Rosenthal, MIT Press, 2008)
The negative perceptions - of personal failings and the immigration taint - likely contribute to increased resistance to government services to the poor, voiced by Tea Party adherents opposed to taxation and "redistribution of income."
Presidential candidate Herman Cain epitomizes the simplistic vision of American individualism caricatured in the 19th century by Horatio Alger, embellished to heroic proportions in post-War America by Ayn Rand and promoted with a fringe of malice by Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin.
Individualism is a belief that individuals are responsible for their success, overcoming obstacles placed by society - or government. If social and economic achievements derive from their own effort, the individual then owes nothing to society. By the same definition, failure to achieve is the individual's responsibility, not the society's or the government's.
Failure to achieve reflected in the "wealth gap" can then be faulted as a failure of the individual, not the circumstances of financial markets run amok or corporate strategies that reward short-term gains in a global market over long-term growth and community strength.
Not all share the philosophy of individualism.
An advocacy group that prepares a more comprehensive measure of family income needs raising the bar on poverty standards - also promotes education provided by society and government as a way to reduce the numbers in poverty. Wider Opportunities for Women (www.wowonline.org) conducts periodic studies to establish a Basic Economic Security Table a measure of the costs of essentials for a family: housing, utilities, food, transportation, child care, personal care products (clothing, cleaning products), health care as well as allotments for savings and taxes.
In April, it said Basic Economic Security income for an average U.S. family with two young children is $67,690. The 2010 poverty threshold for that family is $22,113.
* Edwin Tanji is a former city editor of The Maui News. He can be reached at hakumoole firstname.lastname@example.org. "Haku Mo'olelo," "writing stories," is about stories that are being written or have been written. It appears every Friday.