President's Corner

Who Decides What It Means Be Poor in America?

January 30, 2020

Luz Vega-Marquis
By Luz Vega-Marquis
President and CEO

Six years ago, I asked: What does it mean to be poor in America, and who gets to decide that?

Sadly, the answer today often remains the same as it was six years ago. Poverty is something that happens to “others” – an ill-defined and dehumanized group of people blamed for their own struggles. The poor are seen as lazy, morally and financially weak and undeserving. Those who understand poverty best, families living the experience, have little or no say in this definition. Instead, other people, from politicians to pundits, advance this deeply flawed view.

The truth is, poverty in America is fundamentally different. Poverty is an experience, not a character flaw, an experience many people will face because so many in America live one paycheck from poverty. A staggering 140 million Americans are living without their basic needs being met, the Institute for Policy Studies has reported, and 38.1 million live below the poverty line.

Today, an accurate view of poverty is more critical than ever. As I wrote six years ago, words shape public attitudes and, in turn, shape policy. If we don’t challenge the negative, blame-laden and frankly misguided definition of poverty, policymakers will continue to dismantle programs that provide an economic toehold for poor families. Lawmakers will continue to abdicate their responsibility to create policies that advance this nation toward a more just and equitable future.

For nearly two decades, low-income families have worked with Marguerite Casey Foundation and grantees to build a movement that challenges the myths that often define poverty. Families have told the true story of what it means to raise a family in poverty, defining their lives and what it means to be poor on their own terms. They have shared the complexity of their issues courageously amid crushing pressure to remain unseen.

This year and every year, low-income families need to be heard on the campaign trail and in the halls of power. They know better than anyone what it means to be poor, and they know the solutions to the interconnected issues they face every day. They are the experts redefining poverty away from blame to solutions.

As I look ahead into 2020, I know we will continue building a movement of low-income families and communities demanding an accurate and just approach to poverty in America, one driven for and by families. We know that equity will not be achieved through one-time wins but through vigilance and daily struggle. It begins with the struggle to be heard.

Who Decides What It Means Be Poor in America?