In chapter 2 of Poor People, William T. Vollmann grapples with the concept of poverty. Throughout, he tries to define what it means to be poor yet is remarkably candid in admitting how difficult that is.
The most basic problem in trying to come up with an overarching definition...
of poverty is that it means different things to different people at any given time. Even people who, according to official measurements of poverty, are poor do not see themselves as such, usually because of pride or social stigma.
Then, there are quite radical differences in attitudes toward poverty. Some see it as a sign of moral or spiritual weakness, whereas others lay the blame at the door of the rich. Such stark differences in perspective make it nigh impossible to get at a definition of poverty that would command broad assent.
In dealing with this knotty question, Vollmann breaks down his discussion into eleven subsections where he attempts to define, among other things, how much people need and what the level of subsistence is.
In the first subsection, for example, Vollmann introduces us to a tuna fisherman in Yemen making $18 a day. The fisherman regards himself as quite well-off, but in the United States or any other modern industrialized country, he would be considered extremely poor.
To complicate matters, there are beggar women in the vicinity who don't regard themselves as poor despite the fact that they most certainly are poor, not just by American, but also by Yemeni standards. As we saw earlier, pride often prevents people from admitting that they're poor, and this is a prime example of that phenomenon.
By the end of the second chapter of Poor People, a definition of poverty, one that can command broad assent, is still somewhat elusive. But at the very least, Vollmann has given us a broad perspective, allowing us to see how poverty is a global issue that transcends borders.