Robert Rector is senior research fellow in the Domestic Policy Studies Department of The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org) and co-author of the report “Air Conditioning, Cable TV, and an Xbox: What is Poverty in the United States Today?” Sarah Torre is a research assistant in Heritage’s Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society.
In the midst of a sputtering economic recovery, many Americans understandably cringe at media reports on high unemployment numbers, cued with footage of long lines at emergency food kitchens and homeless shelters.
Government statistics on the number of people living below the official poverty line seem to correspond with the nightly news’ dismal portrayal of America’s fight against poverty.
Almost every year for the past two decades, the U.S. Census Bureau has reported that more than 35 million Americans were living in “poverty.” Last year, the Census Bureau reported that 43.5 million persons, one in seven Americans, were poor.
But do news stories on the poor and government number-crunching accurately reflect the state of poverty in the United States? What is poverty in America? What does it really mean to be “poor” here?
For most Americans, the word “poverty” suggests destitution: an inability to provide a family with reasonable shelter, nutritious food and clothing. Yet, if poverty means significant material hardships, relatively few of the tens of millions identified as being “in poverty” by the Census Bureau could be characterized as poor.
As a new paper from The Heritage Foundation demonstrates, the overwhelming majority of the poor are well-housed, have an adequate and reasonably steady supply of food, and can meet their other basic needs, including medical care.
Poor families certainly struggle to make ends meet, but in most cases, they are struggling to pay for air conditioning and the cable TV bill as well as to put food on the table.
According to the federal government’s own survey data, in 2005, the average household defined as poor by the Census Bureau lived in a house or apartment equipped with air conditioning and cable TV. For entertainment, the household had two color televisions, a DVD player and a VCR. If there were children in the home (especially boys), the family had a game system, such as an Xbox or PlayStation.
In the kitchen, the household had a microwave, refrigerator, and an oven and stove. Other household conveniences included a clothes washer, clothes dryer, ceiling fans, a cordless phone and a coffee maker.
Despite the common perception that poor households suffer from bare cupboards and empty stomachs, by their own report, most poor families are not hungry. The average intake of protein, vitamins and minerals by poor children is indistinguishable from children in the upper middle class. The major dietary problem facing poor Americans is eating too much, not too little. The majority of poor adults, like most Americans, are overweight.
The home of the average poor family was in good repair and not overcrowded. In fact, the typical poor American had more living space than the average European. The average poor family also reports it was able to obtain medical care when needed.
The reality that the vast majority of poor people have access to adequate housing, food and medical care does not detract from the very real pain of those families who experience significant material hardships.
Fortunately, though, those families are a distinct minority among the poor. For example, at any single point in time during the recession year of 2009, around one in 70 poor persons was homeless and one in five experienced temporary food shortages at various times.
Those who are temporarily short on food or are homeless will find no comfort in the fact that their condition is relatively infrequent. The distress and fear for the future the family experiences is real and devastating. Public policy must deal with that distress.
Regrettably, misleading Census Bureau numbers and misrepresentative media reporting distort the real state of “poverty” in America and distract policymakers from addressing the needs of those in real deprivation. Over the long term, exaggeration has the potential to promote a substantial misallocation of limited resources for a government facing massive future deficits.
Sensationalism and misinformation obscure the nature, extent and causes of real material deprivation. This hampers the development of well-targeted, effective programs to reduce the problem for those who are truly in need.
Taking cues from government studies and media reports, policymakers have continued to expand an unsustainable welfare state that focuses solely on material need and fosters dependence on the system. But welfare checks and government handouts never will address the social breakdown –fatherlessness, broken marriages, addiction – that so often leads to material need.
Public policy instead should reflect the importance of foundational relationships such as marriage, family, community and work. Public policy should seek ways to promote self-sufficiency and true human flourishing.
Effective anti-poverty policy must be based on an accurate understanding of Americans’ actual living conditions and address the root causes of true deprivation, the new Heritage paper concludes. Only by accurately assessing the problem can we begin to effectively address the needs of the truly poor.