American Poor: Not as Bad Off as You May Think

In 2009, 43.6 million people were counted as poor in the United States. The poverty rate — i.e., the percent of the population considered poor under the official definition — was reported at 14.3% in 2009. That is one out of every seven persons in the U.S. being counted as poor. (I wonder how those numbers would change if the 12-20 million illegal immigrants were removed from the equation.) An average family of four was considered poor in 2009 if its pre-tax cash income for the year was below $21,954.

homeless familyIt should be noted that the measure of poverty currently in use was developed almost 50 years ago, and has only undergone minor technical changes and adjustments for price changes in the economy. Thus, the “poverty line” still reflects a notion of economic need based on mid-1950s living standards. Furthermore, “in-kind benefits” (e.g., food stamps, housing assistance, EITC & CTC (tax credits)) are not included in the calculations. Fifteen years ago, Congress commissioned a study by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which came up with several specific recommendations on how to improve the “official” measure. Only now are they following through, and the Obama administration has an initiative for the Census Bureau to develop a new “modern” formula (Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM)), following NAS recommendations. It will run in tandem with the current “official” measure, since it will be “experimental”.

Sigh!

In 2007, Robert Rector, a Senior Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation and recognized expert on welfare, conducted and published an independent study, wherein he analyzed several aspects of “poverty” in America — e.g., ownership of property & consumer goods; housing conditions, space, & quality; food supply & malnutrition; financial & material hardships. His findings were actually a bit surprising. Unless, of course, you consider those “in-kind benefits” I mentioned earlier.

While there are, of course, some who are in dire straits, the majority of America’s poor are not nearly as destitute as the words “poor” and “poverty” usually make us think. They get health care when they need it. Obesity is much more of a problem than starvation. They manage to pay their bills. Here are a few more tidbits:

  • Forty-three percent of all poor households actually own their own homes. (Note: This number has probably gone down somewhat during the current housing & foreclosure crisis.) The average home owned by persons classified as poor by the Census Bureau is a three-bedroom house with one-and-a-half baths, a garage, and a porch or patio.
  • The average poor American has more living space than the average individual living in Paris, London, Vienna, Athens, and other cities throughout Europe. (These comparisons are to the average citizens in foreign countries, not to those classified as poor.)
  • Seventy-eight percent have a VCR or DVD player; 62 percent have cable or satellite TV reception.

Doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Kinda makes you wonder about the need for some of those welfare programs.

Mr. Rector summarizes as follows:

“The living conditions of persons defined as poor by the government bear little resemblance to notions of ‘poverty’ promoted by politicians and political activists. If poverty is defined as lacking adequate nutritious food for one’s family, a reasonably warm and dry apartment to live in, or a car with which to get to work when one is needed, then there are relatively few poor persons remaining in the United States. Real material hardship does occur, but it is limited in scope and severity.

The typical American defined as ‘poor’ by the government has a car, air conditioning, a refrigerator, a stove, a clothes washer and dryer, and a microwave. He has two color televisions, cable or satellite TV reception, a VCR or DVD player, and a stereo. He is able to obtain medical care. His home is in good repair and is not overcrowded. By his own report, his family is not hungry and he had sufficient funds in the past year to meet his family’s essential needs. While this individual’s life is not opulent, it is equally far from the popular images of dire poverty conveyed by the press, liberal activists, and politicians.

poor old woman in kitchenBut the living conditions of the average poor person should not be taken to mean that all poor Americans live without hardship. There is a wide range of living conditions among the poor. Roughly a third of poor households do face material hardships such as overcrowding, intermittent food shortages, or difficulty obtaining medical care. However, even these households would be judged to have high living standards in comparison to most other people in the world.

Moreover, the United States can readily reduce its remaining poverty, especially among children. The main causes of child poverty in the United States are low levels of parental work, high numbers of single-parent families, and low skill levels of incoming immigrants. By increasing work and marriage, reducing illegal immigration, and by improving the skill level of future legal immigrants, our nation can, over time, virtually eliminate remaining child poverty.”

As Rector indicates, these findings should not lead anyone to completely dismiss the plight of America’s poor, and some people obviously have it harder than others. Poverty should always be an issue of great concern, as many experience the trials and hardships of being at the low end of the economic ladder. Helping the poor is always a worthy goal, as long as it is done in a responsible and practical way, including implementing policies that encourage poor adults to get steady jobs, maintain stable marriages, and be productive, self-sufficient members of society. (See my other posts on the subject.) But, in this great and wealthy nation, even the majority of the “poor” are not nearly as lacking as those who live in many other places. That is something to be thankful for.

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