Defining Poverty

Poverty is a condition in which one’s basic needs, such as those for food, shelter, and clothing, are not being adequately met. With extreme poverty, one cannot sustain even a minimum state of physical health. People living in relative poverty, do not experience what is considered a basic minimum standard of living relative to other members of society. The “minimum standard of living” is defined by a government, and in the United States, it’s often referred to as the poverty line. In addition to these objective indicators, poverty also has a subjective nature that arises from people’s perceptions of the extent to which they experience deprivation relative to those around them. Poverty, therefore, includes people’s experience of their own economic position in their communities.

The Poverty Line in the United States

The 2017 federal US guideline for poverty is $12,060 for a single person household, and $24,600 for a four-person household. People whose incomes are below those numbers are considered to be living in poverty.

Why Poverty Estimates are Complicated for Ithaca and Tompkins County

An assessment of the number of people living below the poverty line includes all households in the community of study. Ithaca and Tompkins County both have a sizable student population, who, for the most part, generate very little income and rely in large part on supplementation from families, fellowships, and grants. So, some students, who may not actually be poor, are counted as poor, because of their low income. Including them in the poverty estimate artificially inflates the assessment for Ithaca and Tompkins County.

Using SNAP Eligibility as a Substitute for Poverty Estimates

Given the problems associated with relying on reported poverty rates in the City of Ithaca, we are including the American Community Survey data on percentages of households qualifying for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) known to many as “food stamps.” SNAP’s eligibility requirements are similar to the poverty cutoff, but students who would be included in estimates of poverty rates rarely apply or qualify for SNAP. This number, therefore, may be a more accurate indicator of poverty in Ithaca and Tompkins County.

Racial Disparities in Estimates of Poverty

The chart below shows the percent of households qualifying for SNAP in both Ithaca and Tompkins County (during the years 2010-2015). The economic advantage to being White in Tompkins County is evident from the table. White families are substantially less likely to live in poverty than families of color.

The data from this chart is from the American Community Survey, Table S2201.

Things to notice:

  • Native American/American Indian families have the highest rate of SNAP eligibility of all racial groups, at 38.3%, which is 3.42 times the rate of White families.
    The SNAP rate among Black families is 2.9 times higher than the rate among White families.
  • Except for Asian people, substantially higher percentages of people of color qualify for SNAP compared to White people.
  • Latinx families qualify for SNAP at a rate 1.7 times higher than White families.
  • The only racial group with a lower SNAP eligibility rate than White people in Tompkins county is Asian people, whose 0.3% SNAP eligibility is 37.33 times lower than White families.
  • The discrepancy between SNAP eligibility and the poverty rate is most dramatic among Asian families, with 46% of Asian families technically living below the poverty line, and only 0.3% being eligible for SNAP. The approximately 18.3% of Cornell undergraduates who identify as Asian-American are likely a substantial factor.