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Poor Politics
Edwards's poverty "plague" examined.


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Robert Rector

The Census Bureau will release its annual report on poverty in America tomorrow. The report will show, as it has in recent years that around 37 million people live in official poverty. Presidential candidate John Edwards, who hopes to lead the nation in a new crusade against poverty, will, no doubt, seek to reap much publicity from the report.

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In the past, Edwards has claimed that poverty in America is a “plague” which forces 37 million Americans to live in “terrible” circumstances. According to Edwards, an amazing “one in eight” Americans lack “enough money for the food, shelter, and clothing they need,” caught in a daily “struggle with incredible poverty.”

However, examination of the living standards of the 37 million or so persons, the government defines as “poor,” reveals that America’s poverty “plague” may not be as “terrible” or “incredible” as anti-poverty crusader Edwards contends.

If being “poor” means (as Edwards claims it does) a lack of nutritious food, adequate warm housing, and clothing for a family, then very few of America’s 37 million official “poor” people can be regarded as actually poor. Some material hardship does exist in the United States, but, in reality, it is quite restricted in scope and severity.

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

46 percent of all poor households actually 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.

80 percent of poor households have air conditioning. By contrast, in 1970, only 36 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.

Only six percent of poor households are overcrowded; two thirds have more than two rooms per person.

The typical 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; 31 percent own two or more cars.

97 percent of poor households have a color television; over half own two or more color televisions.

78 percent have a VCR or DVD player.

62 percent have cable or satellite TV reception.

89 percent own microwave ovens, more than half have a stereo, and a more than a 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 100-percent above recommended levels. Most poor children today are, in fact, super-nourished and grow up to be, on average, one inch taller and ten pounds heavier than the GIs who stormed the beaches of Normandy in World War II.

While the poor are generally well-nourished, some poor families do experience temporary food shortages. But, even this condition is relatively rare; 89 percent of the poor report their families have “enough” food to eat, while only two percent say they “often” do not have enough to eat.

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

Of course, the living conditions of the average poor American should not be taken as representing all of the nation’s poor: There is a wide range of living conditions among the poor. A third of “poor” households have both cell and land-line telephones. A third also telephone answering machines. At the other extreme, approximately one-tenth of families in poverty have no phone at all. Similarly, while the majority of poor households do not experience significant material problems, roughly a third do experience at least one problem such as overcrowding, temporary hunger, or difficulty getting medical care.

Much official poverty that does exist in the United States can be reduced, particularly among children. There are two main reasons that American children are poor: Their parents don’t work much, and their fathers are absent from the home.

In both good and bad economic environments, the typical American poor family with children is supported by only 800 hours of work during a year — the equivalent of 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.

As noted above, father absence is another major cause of child poverty. Nearly two thirds of poor children reside in single-parent homes; each year, an additional 1.5 million children are born out of wedlock. If poor mothers married the fathers of their children, nearly three quarters of the nation’s impoverished youth would immediately be lifted out of poverty.

Yet, although work and marriage are reliable ladders out of poverty, the welfare system perversely remains hostile to both. Major programs such as food stamps, public housing, and Medicaid continue to reward idleness and penalize marriage. If welfare could be turned around to encourage work and marriage, the nation’s remaining poverty could be reduced.

Another important factor boosting poverty in the U.S. is our broken immigration system which imports hundreds of thousands of additional poor people each year from abroad through both legal and illegal immigration channels. One quarter of all poor persons in the U.S. are now first generation immigrants or the minor children of those immigrants. Roughly one in ten of the persons counted among the poor by Census is either an illegal immigrant or the minor child of an illegal. Immigrants tend to be poor because they have very low education levels. A quarter of legal immigrants and fifty to sixty percent of illegals are high-school dropouts. By contrast, only nine percent of non-immigrant Americans lack a high school degree.

As long as the present steady flow of poverty-prone persons from foreign countries continues, efforts to reduce the total number of poor in the U.S. will be far more difficult. A sound anti-poverty strategy must not only seek to increase work and marriage among native born Americans, it must also end illegal immigration, and dramatically increase the skill level of future legal immigrants.

— Robert Rector is senior research fellow in domestic-policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.



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