The Poor Poor

 Posted by on 10 January 2006 at 9:00 am  Uncategorized
Jan 102006

A fairly good article in the Christian Science Monitor reports on the prevalence of household appliances in American homes. It reports that over 98% of all households today have a television, refrigerator, and stove. Almost 60% of households have computers, compared with less than 20% ten years ago. The article notes that…

…nearly 13 percent of Americans have incomes that place them below the official poverty line. But what does that mean in terms of their daily lives? The fact that 95 percent of them may have a refrigerator tells only part of the story.

The Census report also compares, from 1992 through 1998, people’s perceptions of whether basic needs were being met. More than 92 percent of Americans below the poverty line said they had enough food, as of 1998. Some 86 percent said they had no unmet need for a doctor, 89 percent had no roof leaks, and 87 percent said they had no unpaid rent or mortgage… Two-thirds of those in poverty had air conditioners in 1998, up from 50 percent in 1992.

Isn’t capitalism great?!? Consider that poverty used to mean not earning enough to buy one’s daily bread… and now it means “not enough money to buy the very latest gizmos.” (And that’s despite all the poverty perpetuated by the welfare state!) The article continues:

“In terms of the items people have … it amazes me the number of people who are at or near the poverty line that have color TVs, cable, washer, dryer, microwave,” says Michael Cosgrove, an economist at the University of Dallas in Irving, Texas. That’s not to ignore the hardships of poverty, he adds, “but the conveniences they have are in fact pretty good.”

With all the material abundance of poverty in modern America, I have trouble conjuring any feelings concern for those supposed “hardships of poverty.” Yet some still manage to do so:

Personal computers have grown increasingly ubiquitous. Where fewer than 20 percent of homes had them in 1992, nearly 60 percent did in 2002 (more than own dishwashers). That doesn’t mean all have equal access to PC-enabled economic empowerment. “What good is a computer without Internet access?” asks Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future. In this networked age, he’s only exaggerating a bit. While high-speed Internet access is spreading, the potential rise of free wireless networks in cities could help many low-income Americans, he says.

So over the next few years, any reasonably well-off American will be expected to feel guilty about the great new gap between “the haves” and “the have-nots” — where “the haves” are magically blessed with high speed wireless, while “the have-nots” must suffer with the all the slow pains of dial-up. Please, let me get out my world’s smallest violin: I’ll play a tune or two.

(Also, Will Wilkinson has some good comments on the discussion of the impact of increased wealth on happiness from the article.)

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