During this time period, our conception of poverty has also dramatically evolved through these general stages in the United States (at least according to those who could actually read and write and get published):
- Pre-Independence - Ignored
- Independence to the mid-20th Century - Explained Away
- Mid-20th Century to present - Considered & Addressed (by some, some of the time, in some ways)
And yet, to the lay observer who believes this is a wrong and something should be done about it, the term “poverty” is actually of little practical use. Sure, the child poverty rate and other established rates are helpful statistics; but I am increasingly concerned that we as Americans are more comfortable shining a light on poverty without really knowing what we are talking about, which means it's also become a euphemism. If you look closely, you'll see that it’s an all-too-easily driven vehicle for the college educated to speak about a poorer, browner other - both domestically and abroad - and oversimplify the hopes, wants, and needs of anyone deemed as falling into that group. Intent and awareness aside, I believe we can agree that this is not a type of progress we want.
And though POVERTY!!!! is effective at grabbing attention, it's also a term that's tough to grab hold of and dissect. Is whoever brought it up talking about income? Dependence on government assistance? How persistent health problems can make it impossible to keep a job? Unemployment?
In an effort to better understand the broad state of things, I have found myself gravitating to the American Human Development Index. It considers three indicators - health, education, and economy. Life expectancy, educational attainment, and median income are the primary indicators, among numerous others. It's more specific than "poverty," which I appreciate, though it's worth mentioning that this is only statistical data; and anecdotal data is also needed. The upside, though, is that this lens for understanding quality of life makes it easier to seek out and clarify needs and narratives of individuals and groups in a way that an effort to "understand poverty" really doesn't.
But that is simply a means to an end. My greatest hope is that the South becomes a place where progressive change is commonplace and ownership of that change is continually relinquished to those whom it is most likely to affect.