If poverty, as it has existed throughout history and endures in all parts of the world, can be defined as absolute or relative, then most of the poverty in the United States today is relative. People living in absolute poverty lack the fundamental resources necessary to sustain life for an extended period, such as a diet providing sufficient calories and nutrients, shelter from the elements, protective clothing, and safe drinking water. Universally, people living at this level of deprivation are recognized as poor. Relative poverty, in contrast, is measured against the standard of living prevalent in a society, which changes over time. As a country's standard of living rises, so does the public's perception of what is required for minimal subsistence. In the United States of the 1960s, telephones, televisions, and automobiles were considered luxuries that were beyond the means of most of the poor. It outraged middle-class Americans of that decade to hear of a telephone or TV set in a welfare recipient's home. Yet today most Americans view those items as necessities that are appropriate to the affluent and poor alike, and people in the United States can even be considered poor while living in homes with air-conditioning and microwave ovens.
Poverty persists in absolute or relative form, as do questions about how best to offer assistance. For this reason the history of poverty in America is an account, not just of the poor themselves and the conditions under which they have lived, but also of how government and private citizens have responded to their want. Both sides of the story have significance, as Billy G. Smith, Ph.D., professor of history at Montana State University, has noted, because, "The character of the indigent and the way in which they are treated reveals a great deal about their society."6