November 26, 2003

November 26, 2003 | Commentary on Poverty and Inequality

Thanksgiving Brings Good News on Poverty

As we gather with family and friends to celebrate our blessings at Thanksgiving, we should remember those who are less fortunate -- whose plates are often empty.

But our compassion can make us easy prey for those who would have us believe the number of Americans living in real poverty is rising. The good news this Thanksgiving is that real poverty continues to decline steadily in our nation.

Of course, the latest report from the Census Bureau claims that nearly 35 million Americans lived in poverty last year. But when we look at the living conditions of the people deemed poor, many surprises emerge.

Most of us associate the word "poverty" with destitution. We assume that those who are poor can't provide their families with nutritious food, clothing and reasonable shelter. But only a small number of the 35 million persons the Census Bureau classifies as "poor" fit that description.

Real material hardship does occur, of course. But most poor people live in conditions that would have been judged fairly comfortable just a few generations ago. Consider:

  • Forty-six percent of all poor households own their homes. The typical "poor" home is a three-bedroom house with one and a half baths, a garage and porch or patio.
  • More than three out of every four poor households have air conditioning. Thirty years ago, only 36 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.
  • Only 6 percent of poor households are overcrowded. More than two thirds have more than two rooms per person.
  • The average poor American has more living space than the average individual in Paris, London, Vienna, Athens and other European cities.
  • Nearly three quarters of poor households own a car; 30 percent own two or more.
  • Nearly all have a color television; more than half own two or more. Seventy-eight percent have a VCR or DVD player; 62 percent have cable or "dish" TV.
  • Almost three quarters own microwave ovens. More than half have a stereo, and a third have an automatic dishwasher.

As a group the 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. Poor children actually consume more meat than higher-income children do and have average protein intakes 100 percent above recommended levels. Most poor children today are in fact super-nourished, with the average male growing up to be one inch taller and 10 pounds heavier that the GIs who stormed the beaches of Normandy in World War II.

Some poor families do experience hunger. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 13 percent of poor families and 2.6 percent of poor children are hungry at some point during the year. In most cases, thankfully, their hunger is short-term. Almost 85 percent say their families have "enough" food to eat, while only 3 percent say they "often" don't have enough to eat.

Overall, the typical poor American has a car, air conditioning, a refrigerator, stove, clothes washer and dryer and a microwave. He has two color televisions with a cable or satellite hookup, a VCR or DVD player and a stereo. He can obtain medical care. His home's in good repair and isn't over-crowded. By his own report, his family isn't hungry.

In short, this individual's life, while far from opulent, hardly conjures the images of poverty often conveyed by the press, poverty advocates and politicians.

The best news is that poverty can be readily reduced still further, particularly among children.

There are two main reasons American children are poor: their parents don't work much, and their fathers are absent. The typical poor family is supported by only 800 hours of work a year (16 hours a week). If work in each family were raised to 2,000 hours per year -- the equivalent of one adult working 40 hours per week year-round -- nearly 75 percent of poor children would be lifted above the poverty line.

As for those absent fathers: Nearly two thirds of poor children reside in single-parent homes and each year another 1.3 million children are born out-of-wedlock. If poor mothers married the fathers of their children, almost three quarters of these children would immediately be lifted out of poverty.

Yet our welfare system perversely remains hostile to both work and marriage. Major programs such as Food Stamps, public housing, and Medicaid continue to reward idleness and penalize marriage. If Congress manages to change that, poverty will plummet -- and we'll have even more to be thankful for.

Robert Rectoris a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation. Kirk Johnson is the Weinberg fellow in statistical welfare research in Heritage's Center for Data Analysis.

About the Author

Robert Rector
DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society

Kirk A. Johnson, Ph.D. Visiting Fellow
Center for Data Analysis

Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire