Iesha Small

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Broke vs poor

Being in a persistent and often intergenerational state of having very little money and access to resources is not the same as temporarily having low income as an individual.

“I was broke all the time, which is not to be confused with being poor. I had a safety net.” Roxane Gay, Hunger.

The quote above jumped out at me as I thought it perfectly summed up the fact that a person’s economic situation is more complicated than the current status of their bank balance.

Roxane Gay is a successful writer, professor and social critic. I recently read her memoir, Hunger. At the time of the quote, she is living far away from her family and working a series of low paying jobs sometimes unable to pay her rent. She has very little money and identifies herself as being broke.

Broke (informal):

To no longer have any money and be unable to pay what you owe- Macmillan dictionary:

This definition suggests that to be broke you must have at least had some semblance of money before. Gay is clear to separate her situation at the time from that of poverty, a state she never claims. Gay was born into a comfortable middle class American family, who paid for her to attend an exclusive and “highly selective, coeducational independent school for boarding and day students.” Gay is aware that although she has a series of poorly paying jobs and often runs out of money, her parents would have the means to support her and instantly change and improve her financial and living situation if she asked.

This practical safety net is very different from being poor, where your current way of life is not a temporary respite from a previously comfortable norm but instead a perpetual state. The continual reality of not having enough to meet basic needs is often compounded by your parents and other generations or offshoots of your family experiencing the same lack  alongside you now and before you existed.


Someone who is poor has very little money and few possessions – Collins dictionary

I found Gay’s statement differentiating different types of lack (in this case, broke and poor) thought-provoking. One year of sofa surfing and eating cheap noodles every day for lunch and dinner isn’t necessarily a mark of poverty if you are on good terms with your parents and they could afford to give you a deposit to buy flats similar to the ones you sofa surfed in if you asked them.

Anybody can be temporarily broke but being poor suggests something longer lasting, more persistent and inter-generational.

In the UK there are several ways that the government talks about and measures poverty including:

  • Relative low income before housing costs (household income below 60% of the national median average that year).
  • Relative income after housing costs
  • Absolute poverty

To be able to meaningfully solve any problem, especially one as complicated at poverty,  it helps to start with clearly defining exactly what the problem means and what data will be used to consistently track and measured it over time.

The lack of one clear consistent measure to track and report income inequality and poverty makes it for difficult to hold policymakers and politicians “to hold to account for effectively tackling the causes of poverty or improving the lives of those in poverty.”[1]

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If you are interested in the human side of leadership then my book The Unexpected Leader is for you.

[1] Social Metrics Commission, A new measure of poverty for the UK (2018)

Broke vs poor