Prescriptions for poverty

Poverty is usually described as a status, as there are people below and above the poverty line. We need to do more to capture and represent the experience of poverty.

There are ways this can be done even in a single survey question, such as this one: “During the past 12 months, was there any time when you needed prescription medicine but didn’t get it because you couldn’t afford it?” Here are the percentages answering affirmatively, by official poverty-line status:

Percentage of Adults Aged 18-64 Who Did Not Get Needed Prescription Drugs Because of Cost, by Poverty Status: National Health Interview Survey, 1999-2010

This is not the same as not having any of the prescription drugs you need. What it indicates is economic insecurity rather than deprivation per se.

2 thoughts on “Prescriptions for poverty

  1. This is great, Philip. Thanks!

    I had to cancel a class last week because I was sick. To give the students something to engage with the material (a couple readings on social policy, including Block et al.’s “The Compassion Gap” from Contexts), I had them visit and try to survive for a month near the poverty line.

    Many “played” more times than required to get a sense of how they might be able to game the system, to find the “right” decisions to make so that they could point to how it could be done and someone in poverty might achieve mobility. While their reactions were mixed, everyone seemed to get exactly what you’re saying. They walked away with an appreciation of the uncertainty about what’s ahead for people living in poverty and the tough choices they are forced to make when they encounter situations that others brush off or don’t think twice about (like filling that prescription). These are kids who are passionate about inequality and have been studying various forms of it all semester, but it wasn’t until we captured the experience of poverty that it hit home.


  2. Of course, counting and graphing and statistically visualizing poverty is important. But some of the best ways to understand the experience of poverty is by digesting the wealth of qualitative materials available.

    I do not expect the Census to take this on…but the supplemental measure released this week begins…[BEGINS]…to paint some of the context around the experience of poverty. Comparing, for example, when out of pocket medical costs increase poverty rates versus a broad and inclusive implementation of the EITC or other public assistance.

    None the less, keeping these issues on the radar – how to count and understand poverty – will endure.


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