Understanding Poverty: Getting Beyond Just Dollars and Cents

Sarah Halpern Meekin

A new book by SoHE professor Sarah Halpern-Meekin proposes the idea of “social poverty” as a key factor in people’s well-being and decisions.

This month, Dr. Sarah Halpern-Meekin, Associate Professor in the department of Human Development and Family Studies in the School of Human Ecology, published a new book, Social Poverty: Low-Income Parents and the Struggle for Family and Community Ties, available from NYU Press. Here, she offers an inside look at her research process and describes the promise of the “social poverty” concept for advancing poverty research and improving public policy that aims to help low-income families across the US.

What exactly is “social poverty,” and how is it different from our common understanding of poverty?

When we use the word “poverty,” we’re referring to people lacking adequate financial resources to meet core physical needs. When I use the term “social poverty,” I mean when people do not have enough trustworthy, dependable relationships to meet their core socioemotional needs. This is different than being alone—after all, sometimes we’re most lonely in a crowd when we feel we don’t belong. And it’s more than momentary feelings of loneliness—just as we don’t declare someone food insecure when they’re hungry from skipping lunch, you’re not suffering from social poverty just because you occasionally feel lonely. Social poverty is when you don’t have reliable people in your life who provide social support and with whom you can safely be vulnerable.

What did you see missing in conversations about poverty that led you to this research?

There is so much amazing poverty research being done these days, with a lot of it coming from scholars at the University of Wisconsin. But a lot of research in the field examines social relationships only to the extent that they offer people access to financial resources—a job referral, a couch to crash on, a loan. We all know from our lived experiences, though, that we value our relationships with partners, children, parents, kin, and friends for so many other reasons too, and I wanted to be sure that our poverty research was engaging with this reality.

What surprised you as you pursued your research questions?

I was really struck by how important having a good relationship was to the low-income parents I interviewed. Many had seen their parents’ relationships sour when they were growing up, been burned in previous relationships, and found themselves struggling in their current relationships, but they still held out hope that things would turn out differently for them. They wanted to get things right in this relationship, both for themselves and their children.

Can you share a specific story that helps to crystallize your findings?

One young couple I met, Ashleigh and Mark,* were having their first child together. They got by on Mark’s fast food wages and by staying with their parents. Mark told me he hoped their family would be more stable by the time the baby arrived. I assumed he met financial stability, seeing as the couple was well below the poverty line. But he clarified that they wanted their relationship to be stable. He said he knew they were going to struggle financially, maybe forever, but they still wanted to feel secure in the family they were building. They separated themselves from their old high school friends to escape some “drama,” and their relationships with kin were strained. Ashleigh said that, without Mark, she would “be the loneliest person on the Earth.” With their relationship on rocky footing, the couple was teetering on the brink of social poverty. And so while they cared about their financial wellbeing, they also cared about shoring up other key resources—namely their relationship with each other.

What do you most hope readers take away from your book, be they students, policymakers, social workers, or others?

Social Poverty, Sarah Halpern-Meekin, Book cover.

I hope researchers will think about human needs in a multidimensional way, so we can recognize the complex ways people experience the world and are motivated to act by the variety of financial and social needs they have.

I hope policymakers and practitioners think about the needs of those they’re serving in a more holistic way. Money and financial resources are essential for meeting people’s physical needs, but those aren’t all the needs they have. We can be more creative in how we develop policies and programs to think about ways to meet both social and financial needs.

For example, some really interesting programs are addressing living costs for university students and the social needs of older adults by placing university student housing in retirement homes. As another example, in response to a mass layoff, when help navigating retraining opportunities comes from fellow workers displaced by the layoff, the support is meeting both workers’ financial and social needs around this crisis; they can figure out how to move their careers forward while also getting social support from others walking down this difficult path with them.

Do you have an interesting or useful factoid from the book that you wish were more common knowledge?

Doing this research was a great opportunity for me to learn more about work being done in other fields. For example, I learned that while issues of social isolation and loneliness among older adults receive a lot of attention, young adults are actually just as likely to struggle with these issues. This seems like something those of us on college campuses should really be aware of.

I also learned about what an important health issue social poverty is. We think of our relationships as affecting our emotions and maybe our mental health. But social poverty is as risky to our health as smoking, and it can even make us more susceptible to catching a cold!

What’s next for you, research-wise?

I’m in the early stages of two exciting research projects. In one project, we’re interviewing 25–54-year-old men from rural Wisconsin who are out of the labor force (not working a formal job or actively seeking a formal job). The group of “prime-age” men who are out of the labor force has been growing for decades in the United States, and these numbers aren’t reflected in unemployment statistics. We want to learn more about how these men make ends meet, spend their time, and make meaning in the absence of formal work, especially given traditional cultural norms designating men as breadwinners.

In the second project, we’re interviewing poor mothers who are receiving monthly cash gifts for the first several years of their children’s lives. The larger study is tracing child outcomes to see how this additional income may matter for children’s development and wellbeing. Our portion of the study will involve getting the moms’ perspectives on how they make financial spending decisions and manage their family lives.


Dr. Halpern-Meekin holds affiliations with the Institute for Research on Poverty, the Center for Financial Security, the Center for Child and Family Wellbeing, the Center for Demography and Ecology, the departments of Consumer Science and Sociology, and the La Follette School of Public Affairs. This fall, she will be teaching the capstone course for SoHE’s applied Master’s program. Read more about her work here.

Social Poverty is available for purchase from NYU Press.

*Names have been changed to respect the privacy of these individuals.

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