The most common misused term in these reports is “survival.” It is repeatedly used to describe the hypothetical budgets households must meet, giving the impression that this is an issue of life and death. For instance, the report criticizes the federal measure of poverty, claiming it is “far below what any household actually needs to survive.” ALICE households, who have income above the federal poverty level but below the budgets built by the reports, are said to be lacking “the essentials needed to live and work in the modern economy.”
If this were true, it would be devastating and tragic. It would mean that roughly 16 million households nationwide with income below the federal poverty line are on the brink of starvation and death. Another 35 million households earn income above the federal threshold but below the ALICE “household survival budget,” implying that they also cannot afford to go on living. In Michigan, this would mean over a third of all households are hanging on to life by a thread.
This is hard to believe on its face when considered in historical context. From 1979 to 2016, in real, inflation-adjusted dollars, average household income in the United States grew by 60%. In Michigan, inflation-adjusted per capita income more than doubled from 1970 to 2020. In addition to growth, governments have substantially increased payments to assist poor households. These facts suggest that the very households that produced the people who are alive today were even less able to afford the basics needed to survive. In other words, history shows it is possible to survive while earning less than the ALICE “survival budget,” which makes the term inaccurate.
The reports may be using the term “survive” in a way that deviates from its common meaning: to cease from dying. Perhaps it means something less drastic, such as meeting a certain standard of living that results in a fulfilling existence or basic level of contentment. But if that is the case, describing these thresholds as needed to meet a “basic standard of living” or “minimum level of contentment” would be more accurate. Using the term survival gives the impression that life is in the balance if a household fails to earn income over these thresholds, which is clearly not the case and makes the term an exaggeration.