Liam Mayes

The Broken Hermeneutics of American Poverty

Despite poverty’s persistence, the poor are disappearing. At least since the Industrial Revolution and through the first half of the twentieth century, there was little mystery as to who was poor and who wasn’t. Oliver Twist, Jean Valjean, Little Dorrit, the children looking up into Jacob Riis’ camera; the young protagonist in Richard Wright’s Black Boy, the cast St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton Jr. sketch in Black Metropolis; the Joads or their non-fiction counterparts, preserved in the pictures and stories of the FSA archive; and the characters who populate Zora Neale Hurston’s novels as well as her anthropological writings; all share more than an absence of wealth, they embodied poverty. Without dismissing the specific details that are essential to any of these representations of poverty, we can recognize these figures as poor by their ragged or worn clothes, by their hunger, often by their hygiene, by the way they speak, and by physical traces of the high-risk jobs they have little choice but to accept. This kind of representation has endured and evolved. On the one hand, we would easily recognize a Dickensian pauper as poor today (look no further than depictions of present-day homelessness). On the other hand, to an American audience, hunger has come to represent sporadic crises more than the poor as such. This transformation in the representation of poverty is legible in all kinds of media, running the gamut from popular culture to the academy. While we might understand the changing representations in terms of their fidelity to material poverty, doing so invites an analysis bent on distinguishing good representation from bad. The aggregate changes in discourses about poverty over the last century reveal more than the living conditions of the poor (granted, the extent to which they accomplish that much is a perpetual question). How we represent the poor is also an index of changing perceptions about not only poverty but our capacity to live with social and economic inequality. To this end, my research assumes the material persistence of poverty in order to explore what discourses about poverty reveal about the relationship between one half and the other.

According to the 2016 US Census, the lowest quintile of households shared a little over 3% of total money income (the highest quintile’s share was a little over 51%) and some 12.7% of the population fell below the “poverty threshold,” $12 228 for an adult living alone and $24 563 for a household of four.[1] The Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2017 found that four in ten adults would either be unable to cover an unexpected $400 expense or they could only do so by selling something or borrowing the money.[2] Over 20% of adults “are not able to pay all of their current month’s bills in full” and over a quarter of adults “skipped necessary medical care in 2017 due to being unable to afford the cost.”[3] Archetypes of Dickensian poverty, dustbowl depression, or visible expressions of sustained hunger might help us understand the lives of a portion of these people, but they do not encompass the majority. Neither more statistical data nor improved quantitative methods will reconcile the incongruity between the narrow representations of today’s poor and the vast scope of today’s poverty. While current and comprehensive data on poverty is an essential resource, it does little to explain why these representations have fallen out of step with the state of poverty. In the context of the widespread bleak economic circumstances documented in Census data and policy research, how is poverty represented today and what are the assumptions about the poor, poverty, and inequality that underpin those representations?

The conceit from the outset of this research, as well as the inspiration for the title, is that there are two senses in which poverty has lost its hermeneutic force. The first sense is nominal: the term poverty fails to confer detailed and substantive meaning. We can see this failure in the dependence on poverty to describe extreme cases of deprivation as well as the lives of those bordering the third quintile of the population—in 2017, a household at the fortieth percentile had an income of $47,110.[4] In other words, poverty has lost its object. The second sense in which the hermeneutics of poverty are broken is interpretive. At a discursive level, poverty’s function is increasingly to supplement other social ills ranging from the opioid crisis, to gun violence, to the rise of the alt-right. Here, poverty is supposed to help us understand and confront these social problems but since its role in the association can be cause just as easily as consequence, adding poverty to the equation obscures more than it clarifies. And yet, the widespread use of poverty in this interpretive capacity shows no signs of abating, its durability a reminder that, despite its deficiencies, it remains more desirable than any alternative. In short, the aim of my research is to understand how we arrived at these two hermeneutic failings and to explain their ramifications.


[1] Semega, Fontenot, and Kollar, “Income and Poverty in the United States: 2016.”

[2] Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, “The Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2017.”

[3] ibid

[4] Semega, Fontenot, and Kollar, “Income and Poverty in the United States: 2016.”