Each year, the
U.S. Census Bureau counts the number of "poor" persons in the U.S.
In 2005, the Bureau found 37 million "poor" Americans.
Presidential candidate John Edwards claims that these 37
million Americans currently "struggle with incredible poverty."
Edwards asserts that America's poor, who number "one in eight of
us…do not have enough money for the food, shelter, and
clothing they need," and are forced to live in "terrible"
circumstances. However, an examination of the living
standards of the 37 million persons, whom the government defines as
"poor," reveals that what Edwards calls "the plague" of
American poverty might not be as "terrible" or "incredible" as
candidate Edwards contends.
But, if poverty
means (as Edwards asserts) a lack of nutritious food, adequate warm
housing, and clothing for a family, then very few of the 37 million
people identified as living "in poverty" by the Census Bureau
would, in fact, be characterized as poor. Clearly, material
hardship does exist in the United States, but it is quite
restricted in scope and severity.
"poor" person, as defined by the government, has a living standard
far higher than the public imagines. The following are facts about
persons defined as "poor" by the Census Bureau, taken from various
- Forty-three percent of all poor households actually own their own homes. The
average home owned by persons classified as poor by the Census Bureau is a
three-bedroom house with one-and-a-half baths, a garage, and a porch or patio.
- Eighty percent of poor households have air conditioning. By
contrast, in 1970, only 36 percent of the entire U.S. population
enjoyed air conditioning.
- Only 6 percent of poor households are overcrowded;
two-thirds have more than two rooms per person.
- The typical poor American has more living space than the
average individual living in Paris, London, Vienna, Athens,
and other cities throughout Europe. (These comparisons are to the
averagecitizens in foreign countries, not to those classified
- Nearly three-quarters of poor households own a car; 31 percent
own two or more cars.
- Ninety-seven percent of poor households have a color
television; over half own two or more color televisions.
- Seventy-eight percent have a VCR or DVD player; 62 percent have
cable or satellite TV reception.
- Eighty-nine percent own microwave ovens, more than half have a
stereo, and a more than a third have an automatic dishwasher.
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 has two color televisions, cable or
satellite TV reception, a VCR or DVD player, and a stereo. He is
able to obtain medical care. His home is in good repair and is not
overcrowded. By his own report, his family is not hungry, and he
had sufficient funds in the past year to meet his family's
essential needs. While this individual's life is not opulent, it is
equally far from the popular images of dire poverty conveyed by the
press, liberal activists, and politicians.
Of course, the
living conditions of the average poor American should not be taken
as representing all of the nation's poor: There is a wide range of
living conditions among the poor. A third of "poor" households
have both cell and landline telephones. A third also have telephone
answering machines. At the other extreme, approximately one-tenth
of families in poverty have no telephone at all. Similarly,
while the majority of poor households do not experience
significant material problems, roughly a third do experience at
least one problem such as overcrowding, temporary hunger, or
difficulty getting medical care.
Much poverty that
does exist in the United States can be reduced, particularly among
children. There are two main reasons that American children are
poor: Their parents don't work much, and their fathers are absent
from the home.
In both good and
bad economic environments, the typical American poor family with
children is supported by only 800 hours of work during a year-the
equivalent of 16 hours of work per week. If work in each family
were raised to 2,000 hours per year-the equivalent of one adult
working 40 hours per week throughout the year-nearly 75 percent of
poor children would be lifted out of official poverty.
As noted above,
father absence is another major cause of child poverty. Nearly
two-thirds of poor children reside in single-parent homes; each
year, an additional 1.5 million children are born out of wedlock.
If poor mothers married the fathers of their children, nearly
three-quarters of the nation's impoverished youth would immediately
be lifted out of poverty.
work and marriage are reliable ladders out of poverty, the
welfare system perversely remains hostile to both. Major programs
such as food stamps, public housing, and Medicaid continue to
reward idleness and penalize marriage. If welfare could be turned
around to encourage work and marriage, the nation's remaining
poverty could be reduced.
welfare reform can help to reduce poverty, such efforts will be
partially offset by the poverty-boosting impact of the nation's
immigration system. Each year, the U.S. imports, through both legal
and illegal immigration, hundreds of thousands of additional
poor persons from abroad. As a result, one-quarter of all poor
persons in the U.S. are now first-generation immigrants or the
minor children of those immigrants. Roughly one in ten of the
persons counted among the poor by the Census Bureau is either an
illegal immigrant or the minor child of an illegal. As long as the
present steady flow of poverty-prone persons from foreign countries
continues, efforts to reduce the total number of poor in the U.S.
will be far more difficult. A sound anti-poverty strategy must
seek to increase work and marriage, reduce illegal
immigration, and increase the skill level of future legal
—Robert Rector is Senior
Research Fellow in Domestic Policy Studies at The Heritage