If poverty is defined as generally lacking adequate nutritious food for one's Family, suitable clothing, and a reasonably warm, dry apartment in which to live, or lacking a car to get to work when one is needed, then there are few poor persons remaining in the United States. Real material hardship does occur in America, but it is limited in both extent and severity. The bulk of the "poor" live in material conditions that would have been judged comfortable or well-off just a few generations ago.
The old maxim that "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer" is simply untrue. Material conditions of lower-income Americans have improved dramatically over time. In fact, living conditions in the nation as a whole have improved so much that American society can no longer clearly remember what it meant to be poor or even middle class in earlier generations.
But higher material living standards should not be regarded as a victory for the War on Poverty. Living conditions were improving dramatically and poverty was dropping sharply long before the War on poverty began. The principal effect of the War on poverty has been not to raise incomes, but to displace self-sufficiency with dependence. A second consequence of Welfare has been the destruction of families. When the War on poverty began, 7.7 percent of children were born out of wedlock. Today, the figure is 32 percent. Using the Census Bureau's own standards, a child born to a never-married mother is 700 percent more likely to live in poverty than is a child born to a husband and wife whose marriage remains intact.
The Census poverty report has been tightly linked to the War on poverty since its inception. The implicit message of the poverty report is that government should throw more and more Welfare benefits at low-income communities in an effort to artificially raise Family incomes above the official poverty thresholds. Such Welfare policies have been disastrous.
Despite spending $7 trillion, the War on Poverty--by eroding the work ethic and marriage--has failed. By undermining families' capacity for self-support, the War on poverty expanded the clientele of needy persons. Government became caught in a trap: The more aid that it gave, the more persons in apparent need of its aid emerged. With the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, the federal government finally began to break away from this failed entitlement mentality. But the Census Bureau report continues to embody the old, failed philosophy of unending free handouts.
The Census poverty report also has had a distorting effect on the national dialogue by focusing attention exclusively on income and material living standards while ignoring values and behavior. The report is rooted in the belief that "poverty" causes social problems such as crime, drug use, school failure, illegitimacy, and dependence. This belief, although common, is false. Clearly, there were far more truly poor persons in earlier generations than there are today. (In fact, nearly all adults alive today had parents or grandparents who grew up "poor" in the sense of having incomes below the current Census thresholds, adjusted for inflation.) If it were true that "poverty" causes social and behavioral problems, then earlier generations should have been awash in drugs, crime, and promiscuity. But this was not the case. Most social problems have expanded as incomes have increased.
In reality, it is the norms and values within a Family, rather than its income, that are critical to a child's well-being and prospects for success in future life. Ironically, conventional Welfare, with its misplaced emphasis on artificially boosting income, has a strongly damaging effect on the very values that are critical to a child's success. By ignoring values and undermining the norms of work, self-control, and marital stability, the War on poverty has harmed those whom it intended to help.
Overall, the Census poverty report is deeply flawed as a measurement tool and misleading as a policy indicator. The report not only exaggerates poverty, but, even more tragically, encourages policymakers to focus on the symptom of income shortage while ignoring behavioral problems, which are the root causes of the lack of income. As such, the report serves both society and the poor badly.
Robert E. Rector is Senior Policy Analyst in Welfare and Family Issues at The Heritage Foundation.
INTERNATIONAL HOUSING OPTIONS
LIVING STANDARDS OF "POOR" HOUSEHOLDS