Wednesday, March 21, 2012

On Poverty

Fascinating conversation last night in class about what it means to be poor. A few weeks ago, I asked my students to look up some interesting demographic facts about the state they’ve been assigned to follow. One of my students found poverty statistics for his state and wanted to know what it meant to be officially poor in the United States. So, yesterday, I looked up information on the federal poverty level and presented this in class. According to the data I found, in 2011, one person earning under $10,890 per year would be classified as poor in the U.S. (the figures are slightly higher for Alaska and Hawaii). Roughly translated, that’s about 60,000RMB per year. My students were STUNNED by this. As the department chair pointed out, most of the students in the class, who will graduate in a year or so with an MA in political science, would probably be earning less than that. In China, that much money puts you solidly in the middle class.
As a result, I pointed out (and showed them some data) that the cost of living is higher in the U.S. as compared to China (although to be sure, the cost of living in a city like Shanghai probably approaches or exceeds the cost of living in a rural area in the U.S.).  I also mentioned how a lot of people who are poor in the U.S. have to choose between things like food and medication, but of course, for my students, having the ability to visit a doctor who will prescribe you medication seems like a solidly middle class experience. I asked my students how they would define poverty in China.  They seemed to come to a consensus that someone making about 2000-3000 RMB per year would be considered poor; that comes out (again roughly translated) to about $400-$500USD per year. From their perspective then, being poor in the U.S. seemed like a pretty good life. 
Now, I’m not arguing that people in the U.S. who make that amount of money are rich or even solidly middle class, but from the perspective of my Chinese students, the arguments made by conservative organizations like the Heritage Foundation make some sense. For them, poor people really don’t have TVs or DVD players or even refrigerators and stoves (I mean – almost no one in Shanghai even has central heat – it’s not allowed). Don’t get me wrong; I’m not all of a sudden going to become a Heritage Foundation groupie, I’m too liberal for that. But these sorts of discussions are fascinating for me and really are as much a learning experience for me as they are for my students.

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