The Plight of the Poor in America

 Posted by on 5 September 2005 at 8:00 am  Uncategorized
Sep 052005

The recent events in New Orleans have caused the news media to focus a lot of attention on issues of socioeconomic class in America. A couple of representative articles include this one from the Washington Post (“Living Paycheck to Paycheck Made Leaving Impossible“) and this essay from John Scalzi (“Being Poor“), carefully crafted to tug at middle-class heartstrings.

However, these essays only tell part of the story. Without minimizing the hardships of those in America who do experience relative poverty, I’d like to draw the readers’ attention to this interesting analysis from the Heritage Foundation, entitled “Understanding Poverty and Economic Inequality in the United States” (September 2004). Here are some selected excerpts:

The Census Bureau reports that 35.9 million persons “lived in poverty” in 2003. To understand poverty in America, it is important to look behind these numbers and examine the actual living conditions of the individuals the government deems to be poor. For most Americans, the word “poverty” suggests destitution — an inability to provide a family with nutritious food, clothing, and reasonable shelter. Yet only a small number of the millions of persons classified as “poor” by the Census Bureau fit that description. Although real material hardship certainly does occur, it is limited in scope and severity. Most of America’s “poor” live in material conditions that would be judged as comfortable or well off just a few generations ago.

The following facts about persons defined as “poor” by the Census Bureau are taken from various government reports:

* Forty-six percent of all poor households own their own homes. 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.

* Seventy-six percent of poor households have air conditioning. By contrast, 30 years ago, only 36 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.

* Only 6 percent of poor households are overcrowded. More than two-thirds have more than two rooms per person.

* 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.)

* Nearly three-quarters of poor households own a car; 30 percent own two or more cars.

* Ninety-seven percent of poor households have a color television. Over half own two or more color televisions.

* Seventy-eight percent of America’s poor own a VCR or DVD player; 62 percent have cable or satellite TV reception.

* Seventy-three percent of America’s poor own microwave ovens; more than half have a stereo; and one-third have an automatic dishwasher.

As a group, America’s poor are far from being chronically undernourished. The average consumption of protein, vitamins, and minerals is virtually the same for poor and middle-class children and, in most cases, is well above recommended norms. Poor children actually consume more meat than do higher-income children and have average protein intakes that are 100 percent above recommended levels. Most poor children in America today are, in fact, super-nourished and grow up to be, on average, one inch taller and 10 pounds heavier that the GIs who stormed the beaches of Normandy in World War II…

Overall, 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. Although this individual’s life is not opulent, it is equally far from the popular images of dire poverty conveyed by the press, activists, and politicians.

The report does note that there is a fairly wide variety within the category denoted “poor” by the US government, but even in the worst off, “the hardship is generally not severe by historic or international standards.”

Certainly as I was looking at the news footage of some of the angry, demanding refugees in New Orleans, I couldn’t help but notice that a significant percentage of them did not look emaciated or underfed by any stretch of the imagination. A lot of them carried a lot more pounds than the average Coloradoan.

Plus, much of the problem appears to be behavioral:

In good economic times or bad, the typical poor family with children is supported by only 800 hours of work each year: That amounts to 16 hours of work per week. If work in each family were raised to 2,000 hours per year — the equivalent of one adult working 40 hours per week throughout the year — nearly 75 percent of poor children would be lifted out of official poverty…

Conclusion: The recent Census Bureau report substantially exaggerates the extent of poverty and economic inequality in the United States. To the extent that enduring poverty continues in our society, it is largely the result of personal behavior, particularly the lack of work and marriage…

Of course these issues are distinct from the immediate hurricane-related problems, but do provide some background context to the Tracinski article recently cited by Diana.

And by the way, here’s one of many rebuttals to the “Being Poor” essay cited above.

(Heritage Link via Mike Williams.)

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