August 31, 2007 | Commentary on Welfare and Welfare Spending , Poverty and Inequality

'Poverty In America'

The Census Bureau announced Tuesday that 36.5 million Americans are "poor." Presidential candidate John Edwards claims these 36.5 million Americans "do not have enough money for the food, shelter and clothing they need." According to Edwards, poverty is an appalling national "plague" forcing "one in eight of us" to live in "terrible" circumstances.

But, if poverty means (as Edwards claims) a lack of nutritious food, adequate warm housing and clothing, then very few of the 36.5 million people identified as "poor" by Census are, in fact, poor.

Some material hardship does exist in America, but it is quite limited in severity and scope.

According to the government's own data, the typical person defined as "poor" by the Census has cable or satellite TV, air conditioning, a microwave, a DVD player or VCR, and two color TVs. Three quarters of these "poor" own a car and nearly a third have two or more cars.

By his own testimony, the typical "poor" person consistently has enough food to feed his family and enough money to meet all essential expenses such as mortgage, rent, utilities and important medical care. When asked, he reports that his family was able to obtain medical care whenever needed during the past year.

Government data show that 43 percent of all "poor" Americans actually own their own homes - typically, a three-bedroom house with one-and-a-half baths, a garage and a porch or patio.

Only 6 percent of "poor" families are overcrowded. In fact, poor Americans living in houses or apartments, on average, have more living space per person that does the average citizen living in European countries such as England, France and Germany. (Note: this comparison is to the average European, not poor Europeans.)

As a group, America's poor are far from chronically undernourished. The average consumption of protein, vitamins and minerals is virtually the same for poor and middle-class children and, in most cases, is well above recommended norms. Most poor children today are, in fact, super-nourished - growing up to be, on average, 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 temporary food shortages, a condition touted as "hunger" by activists. But even this condition is relatively rare: 89 percent of the poor report their families always have "enough" food to eat, while only 2 percent say they "often" do not have enough to eat.

Much of the official poverty that does exist is self-inflicted, a result of poor decisions and self-defeating behaviors. Weak work ethic plays a big role in poverty: In good economic times or bad, the typical poor family with children is supported by only 800 hours of work during a year - 16 hours per week.

If work in each family were raised to 2,000 hours per year - the equivalent of one adult working 40 hours a week throughout the year - nearly 75 percent of poor children would be immediately lifted out of official poverty.

Father absence is another major cause of child poverty. Nearly two-thirds of poor children reside in single-parent homes. Another 1.5 million children are born out of wedlock each year. If poor single mothers married the fathers of their children, almost three-quarters would immediately be lifted out of poverty.

While work and marriage are reliable ladders out of poverty, the welfare system remains perversely hostile to both. Despite welfare reform, major programs such as food stamps, public housing and Medicaid continue to reward idleness and penalize marriage. If welfare could be turned around to require work and encourage marriage, poverty among children would drop substantially.

Immigration also plays a major role in U.S. poverty. Each year, our nation imports hundreds of thousands of new poor persons. Porous borders encourage some 800,000 illegal aliens a year to enter the nation. And our legal immigration system strongly favors low-skill immigrants over higher-skill immigrants.

As a result, one quarter of all poor persons in the United States are now immigrants or their minor children. An amazing one in 10 of the poor counted by Census is either an illegal alien or the minor child of an illegal.

Immigrants tend to be poor because they are poorly educated; some 60 percent of illegal aliens and a quarter of legal immigrants lack a high-school degree, compared to 12 percent of native-born Americans. As long as the massive flow of poverty-prone persons from foreign countries continues, efforts to reduce poverty in the United States will be far more difficult. Any sound anti-poverty strategy must stop illegal immigration, and increase the skill level of future legal immigrants.

Robert Rector is senior research fellow in domestic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.

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First appeared in the New York Post