The United States Government says that to be poor is to live at, "The point below which a household of a given size has pre-tax cash income insufficient to meet minimal food and other basic needs" (The Federal Poverty Guidelines). So you are poor if your income before taxes are taken away does not provide you with enough money to but a minimal amount of food and other basic needs. We all need food, but also a place to live, or shelter, and if it is a place that gets cold, we have to pay for heat, and of course at least basic clothing and shoes. people with children have more needs and costs, and sometimes the most important cost is healthcare. Perhaps others assumed or usually thought of the poor as unemployed people, many work, and many work very hard. These people are often referred to as the the "working poor." These people with jobs also usually need additional money for transportation to work. Figuring out how much income real people need to not be poor, or to survive is complicated. In Barbra Ehrenreich's book Nickel and Dimed, she examines the real lives of people struggling at the poverty level about fifteen years ago. She does this by taking low-paying jobs, and finds that even having a job does not guarantee that someone is not poor, and that being poor is more complex than just reading the Federal Poverty's guidelines.
Ehrenreich's perception of poverty is similar to the United States Government's perception in that both would agree poverty means a person is unable to meet basic needs, such as shelter. When Ehrenreich first meets some of her fellow low-paid employees, she finds out right away, "Housing, in almost every case, is the principle source of disruption in their lives" (25). Being able to afford a house or decent apartment or not makes the a huge difference for the people she meets. For many of them, shelter is the difference between making it and not making it.
Ehrenreich's views changed during her experience. She started her project thinking the working poor were less intelligent than she was, or maybe less intelligent than more successful people in general and that to the she was special. But when reflecting back on the whole excursion, she thinks, "The only thing that really made me 'special' was my inexperience" (8). From being around poor working class members of society, she changes her opinion that there is something special in her, and comes to realize that the only significant difference between them is that she has not been exposed to minimum wage jobs as much. Some people can be smart and work hard, and still be poor and struggling.
I struggled with the idea of the "working poor"and the fact that someone can both work hard and still be destitute. If you come to school from a nice warm house, and have plenty of food and clothing, and if you are reasonably intelligent, it is easy to assume that poor people are different from you, so you don't need to worry about ever being poor. The whole idea about poor people is not threatening if they are different from us. However, in Ehrenreich's experience the people she works with are not dull or dim-witted and still struggle with finding a place to sleep at night. This challenges the whole notion of what I thought it meant to be poor, and also does away with the old notion that hard work pays off. Some times it doesn't.