Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist and chairman of a subcommittee on which I am the ranking minority member, called a hearing this week titled, “Is Poverty a Death Sentence.” My answer was a resounding “No.”
Anyone who wishes to equate poverty with death must go to the Third World or seek out socialism and tyranny. Where you find command economies, you will find death and starvation. In contrast, those who wish to see death from poverty in our country are blind to the truth. While we all hope to lessen the sting of poverty, we need to put poverty in America into context.
Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation has profiled the typical poor household in America. The average poor household has a car, air conditioning, two color televisions, cable or satellite TV, a DVD player, and an Xbox. Its home is in good repair and bigger than the average (non-poor) European home. They report that in the past year they were not hungry, were able to obtain medical care as necessary, and could afford all essential needs.
An American citizen can expect to live a decade longer than the world average, and nearly twice as long as in some African countries. Infectious diseases decimate Third World countries while American citizens are often immunized or easily treated for similar conditions. Mortality due to infectious disease affects 50 percent of children in Africa but now less than 1 percent in America. While more than 750,000 people around the world die each year from malaria, the United States has zero deaths from the disease.
Research shows that poor Americans are healthier than the rich of previous generations. Only in America would we label poverty a “death sentence” for poor families when they are living twice as long as they did 100 years ago.
To the extent that poverty impacts health, much of it can be attributed to behavioral factors. Over 30 percent of those living below the poverty smoke, compared with 19 percent of the rest of the population. Obesity rates are significantly higher among the poor than the general population, an unimaginable problem for those starving in North Korea or Somalia.
One example of how cultural factors impact health among the poor is known as the “Hispanic health paradox.” According to a National Institutes of Health study, “despite higher poverty rates, less education, and worse access to health care, health outcomes of many Hispanics living in the United States today are equal to, or better than, those of non-Hispanic whites.” Researchers believe the strong family unit in Hispanic culture, not genetics, explains the paradox.
This context does not negate the fact that there are truly needy Americans. But with a national debt of $14.3 trillion and increasing structural deficits, we must be more precise in both how we talk about poverty in America and whom we decide to target with scarce federal resources. We need to ask: Are we targeting federal programs to those most in need? Are federal poverty programs accomplishing their goals? Are some programs creating unnecessary and unhealthy dependence on government?
If poverty is in any way a death sentence, it is big government that has acted as the judge and jury — conscripting poor Americans into a lifetime of dependence on a broken and ineffective federal government.
In the half-century since LBJ’s “War on Poverty” began, we have spent $16 trillion to fight poverty. We now spend over $900 billion a year on over 70 means-tested welfare programs under 13 government agencies. Yet, thanks or no thanks to the federal government, we now have more poverty as measured by government than we did in the 1970s. An all-time high of 40 million Americans depend on food stamps, and 64 million are enrolled in Medicaid. Government is the problem, not the solution.
We also need to understand that poverty is not a state of permanence. When you look at people in the bottom fifth of the economic ladder, only 5 percent are still there 16 years later. In a University of Michigan study of 50,000 families, 75 percent of the bottom fifth make their way up to the two highest quintiles. The rich are getting richer but the poor are getting richer even faster. U.S. Treasury statistics show that 86 percent of the bottom 20 percent on the economic ladder moved to a higher quintile.
We need to be proud of the American Dream and promote policies that encourage the economic growth that allows so many to rise up out of poverty. Rather than hold hearings asking whether poverty is a death sentence and proposing more and more government welfare programs, we need to better demonstrate what America has done right to alleviate poverty in historically unprecedented ways.
— Rand Paul is a U.S. senator from Kentucky and the ranking member on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee’s subcommittee on primary health and aging.