Politics & Policy

Plugged-In Poverty

Media images of homeless families and hungry children distort poverty policy.

The Census Bureau reported last fall that 43 million Americans — one in seven of us — were poor. But what is poverty in America today?

The most recent government data show that more than half of the families defined as poor by the Census Bureau have a computer in the home. More than three of every four poor families have air conditioning, almost two-thirds have cable or satellite television, and 92 percent have microwaves.

How poor are America’s poor? The typical poor family has at least two color TVs, a VCR, and a DVD player. One-third have a wide-screen, plasma, or LCD TV. And the typical poor family with children has a video-game system such as Xbox or PlayStation.

Are these government numbers a fluke? Perhaps they’re artificially inflated because working-class families — with lots of conveniences in their homes — have lost jobs in the recession and temporarily joined the ranks of the poor?

Nope. That’s not what drives these numbers. Instead, the broad array of modern conveniences in the homes of the poor is the result of many decades of steady improvement in their living standards.

Year by year, the poor tend to be better off. Consumer items that were luxuries or significant purchases for the middle class a few decades ago have become commonplace in poor households.

In part, this is because of the normal downward trend in prices that sets in after consumer items are introduced. Initially, new products tend to be expensive and affordable only to the affluent. Over time, prices fall, and the products saturates the entire population — including poor households. As a rule of thumb, poor households tend to obtain modern conveniences about a dozen years after the middle class.

Liberals use the declining relative prices of many amenities to argue that it is no big deal that poor households have air conditioning, computers, microwaves, and cable or satellite TV. They contend that even though most poor families have a house full of modern conveniences, the average poor family still suffers from real deprivation in basic needs such as food and housing.

Really? Let’s look at housing.

The typical news story about poverty features a homeless family with kids sleeping in the back of a minivan. But government data show that only one in 70 poor persons are homeless.

Another common media image of poverty is a despondent family living in a dilapidated mobile home. But only a tenth of the poor live in trailers; the rest live in houses or apartments, many of which are in good repair. The poor are rarely overcrowded. In fact, the average poor American has more living space than the average non-poor European.

How about hunger? Activists proclaim, “At the end of every day, 17 million children go to bed hungry.” TV news reports wail that America faces a “hunger crisis” in which “nearly one in four kids” is hungry.

But the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which conducts the nation’s food-consumption and hunger survey, says otherwise. The USDA reports that 988,000 children (or 1.3 percent of all American children) personally experienced very low food security — which means “reduced food intake and disrupted eating patterns” — at any point in 2009.

During the full course of the year, only one child in 67 was reported “hungry,” even temporarily, because the family couldn’t afford enough food. Ninety-nine percent of children did not skip a single meal during 2009 because of lack of financial resources.

The USDA also reports that there is no difference in quality of diet between children from high- and low-income homes.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that no poor family faces temporary food shortages. If food budgets get tight at the end of the month, adults cut back their own food consumption while sparing their kids.

Still, the USDA reports that during all of 2009, less than one poor household in five experienced temporary “reduced food intake and disrupted eating patterns” for lack of financial resources.

Eating too much, not too little, is the major dietary problem faced by poor adults. The majority of poor adults, like the majority of other Americans, are overweight.

None of this means America’s poor live in the lap of luxury. The lifestyle of the typical poor family certainly isn’t opulent. But it is equally far from the images of stark deprivation purveyed by activists and the mainstream media.

If we as a nation are ever to have a sound anti-poverty policy, it must be based on accurate information on the extent, severity, and causes of actual deprivation. Exaggeration and misinformation will benefit neither society, the taxpayer, nor the poor.

— Robert Rector is senior research fellow in domestic policy at the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org) and co-author of the new report “Air Conditioning, Cable TV, and an Xbox: What Is Poverty in the United States Today?


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