For two decades, the Census Bureau has reported almost yearly that more than 35 million Americans live in “poverty.” Last year, census officials grabbed headlines by saying 43.5 million persons were poor. That’s one in seven Americans.
But what does it mean to be “poor” in America? What is poverty?
For most U.S. residents, the word “poverty” suggests destitution: an inability to provide yourself and your family with reasonable shelter, nutritious food and clothing.
A Poverty Pulse poll taken by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, for example, asked: “How would you describe being poor in the U.S.?” The vast majority of responses focused on homelessness, hunger or inability to eat properly, and failure to meet basic needs.
The dominant news media amplifies this link in the public mind between poverty and severe deprivation. Most stories on poverty feature homeless families, or folks living in crumbling shacks, or lines of the downtrodden waiting to eat in soup kitchens.
Fortunately, such images have little or nothing to do with the actual living conditions of most of the more than 40 million Americans defined as “poor” by the Census Bureau.
The government’s own survey data shows that in 2005, the average poor household lived in a house or apartment equipped with air conditioning and cable television. The family had a car – and a third of the poor have at least two cars.
For entertainment, the average poor household enjoyed two color TVs, a DVD player and a VCR. If children were in the home (especially boys), the family had a video game system such as Xbox or PlayStation.
A microwave, refrigerator, oven and stove were all in the kitchen of the average poor household. Other conveniences included clothes washer and dryer, ceiling fans, cordless phone and coffee maker.
The home of this average poor family also was in good repair and not overcrowded, according to government data. In fact, the typical poor American had more living space than the average European. (That’s average European, not average poor European.)
Not only was the average poor family able to obtain necessary medical care, but when asked most families said they had enough money in the past year to meet all essential needs.
By the family’s own report, it wasn’t hungry. In fact, the average intake of protein, vitamins and minerals by poor children is indistinguishable from that of kids in the upper middle class. In most cases, it’s well above recommended norms.
Poor young men today are actually taller and heavier at age 18 or 19 than young men in the middle class were in the late 1950s. They’re also a full inch taller and 10 pounds heavier than American soldiers who fought in World War II.
The main dietary problem faced by poor Americans is eating too much, not too little. The majority of poor adults, like most Americans, are overweight.
Should a family that lives this way be considered poor? The overwhelming answer from the public is no. A scientific national poll conducted in 2009 for The Heritage Foundation asked individuals whether they agreed or disagreed with this statement:
“A family in the U.S. that has a decent, uncrowded house or apartment to live in, ample food to eat, access to medical care, a car, cable television, air conditioning and a microwave at home should not be considered poor.”
These living conditions closely match those of the typical family defined as “poor” by the Census Bureau. But the vast majority of Americans said they wouldn’t regard such a family as poor. That includes 80 percent of Republicans and 77 percent of Democrats.
Does this mean there are few poor families in the United States? Of course not. Many families experience significant material hardship. Fortunately, they are a distinct minority among the more than 40 million Americans the government calls poor.
During the recession year of 2009, for example, the majority of poor families had an adequate and reasonably steady supply of food. However, many worried at times about having enough money for food. One in five temporarily ran short on food at various times.
Although the overwhelming majority of the poor were well-housed, the government numbers show, roughly 4 percent became temporarily homeless during 2009.
Such problems remain a real concern. But effective government policy and programs must be based on accurate information, not sensation-mongering.
In the long run, grossly exaggerating the extent and severity of material deprivation in America won’t benefit the poor, the economy or society as a whole.
Robert Rector is a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation.