How Poor are the Poor?

COMMENTARY Immigration

How Poor are the Poor?

Sep 1st, 2007 2 min read

Spokesperson, The LIBRE Initiative

Israel Ortega is a former contributor for The Foundry.

"The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer." It's a common catchphrase many Americans use to describe our economy. Politicians often repeat the phrase. Not too long ago, former Sen. John Edwards gained notoriety for claiming there are, "Two Americas -- one for the rich and one for the poor."

If we are to believe Edwards, "one in eight Americans do not have enough money for the food, shelter and clothing that they need." Supposedly, these people are "forced to live in terrible conditions."

To the casual observer, it must be appalling to think that in the world's richest country there are still citizens living in this type of destitute. But the Census Bureau this week actually reported that poverty is declining.

And a closer look at the numbers reveals that even those Americans described as poor aren't as impoverished as the media and many politicians would have us believe. According to my colleague Robert Rector, a Senior Research Fellow in Domestic Policy, 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 also has two color televisions, cable or satellite TV reception, a VCR or DVD player, and a stereo. And in case you are wondering, Rector draws this information from various (and all available to the public) government and public expenditure reports.

Of particular interest to Hispanics is Rector's analysis on how America's poor compare to Latin America's poor. According to the United Nations Center for Human Settlements and World Bank, the typical housing space per capita in the U.S. is 721 square feet, compared to the 162 square feet for the typical Mexican or Chilean family.

Another characteristic of the impoverished is stunted growth found in malnourished children. Here too, evidence suggests that the percentage of children in America who are stunted is relatively low compared to other continents. In Africa, for instance, the percentage is a terrible 36 percent, and in Latin America it's 22 percent. Here in the United States, it's 2.6 percent.

Now, none of this information is to imply that poverty in our country is not a real problem -- as New Yorkers, we are accustomed to seeing poverty with our own eyes every day. But to correctly prescribe a remedy for poverty, a clearer and more accurate snapshot of today's poor is absolutely necessary.

What the evidence suggests is that one sure-fire way to reduce poverty is to encourage marriage. Unfortunately too many of today's children are being born out of wedlock, leaving young women caring for their kids without a father figure and the income he would bring.

Under President Bill Clinton, the federal government moved in the right direction by encouraging marriage. Lawmakers passed the 1996 Welfare Reform Act even though many liberals called the reforms "heartless." Instead, this reform has helped many Americans escape their dependence on government services.

In today's heated political climate it's easy to get lost in the rhetoric, but as always, it's worth pausing to carefully look at all the facts before pressing forward. And while it's clear that poverty is real, our elected officials would better serve us by asking tough questions about how we can really reduce poverty in America.

Israel Ortega is a Senior Media Services Associate at the Heritage Foundation and has worked in Washington, D.C. and Congress for half a decade.

First Appeared in NYC's El Diario