A Poor Way to Measure  Poverty

COMMENTARY Political Process

A Poor Way to Measure  Poverty

Sep 21, 2007 3 min read

Visiting Fellow

Each year, when you hear the latest Census Bureau numbers on poverty - when they say how many of our fellow Americans are poor - what do you picture?

If you're like most Americans, you imagine people who are destitute. They lack decent shelter. They don't have enough food and clothing. Luxuries are virtually non-existent. They might even beg on street corners.

Well, I have some good news for you: Although there are desperate people who fit that description - real people who need our help - most of the folks the government classifies as "poor" live a very different lifestyle than you might imagine.

My Heritage Foundation colleague Robert Rector, who is among the foremost experts on poverty in the nation, has examined the Census numbers and found that, thankfully, the "poor" in America are far better off than those who espouse bigger government would have you believe. His detailed analysis is available on heritage.org, but here are a few highlights:

  • Forty-three percent of all poor households actually own their own homes. The average home owned by persons classified as poor 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.
  • Six percent of poor households are considered 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 European cities. (These comparisons are to the average citizens in foreign countries, not to those classified as poor.)
  • 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.

Now, why should this matter? Because when kind-hearted Americans hear that in 2005, the Census Bureau found 37 million "poor" Americans, they assume there are … well, 37 million Americans scratching out a hand-to-mouth existence that rivals that of Tom Joad's family in "The Grapes of Wrath." And when politicians exploit that perception to further their own ends - to whip up "class warfare" to justify higher taxes or increased spending on failed programs - Americans wind up being played for fools.

Again, there are those who are truly in need. And if you've ever wondered why, in America - one of the most blessed and affluent nations in the world - some people suffer in poverty, Rector explains the cause and the solutions:

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. … [T]he 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.

By enshrining policies hostile to marriage and work - the two great poverty-slayers - the government actually perpetuates poverty. Programs such as public housing, food stamps and Medicaid "reward idleness and penalize marriage," Rector says. And the problem is made worse, he adds, by the immigration influx:

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 10 of the persons counted among the poor by the Census Bureau is either an illegal immigrant or the minor child of an illegal.

So, if we really want to reduce poverty, America's course should be clear: Support timeless values like fidelity, hard work and personal responsibility. We must also reduce illegal immigration and increase the skill level of future legal immigrants. Remember the real answers the next time some politician says it's simply a matter of raising your taxes.

Rebecca Hagelin, a vice president at The Heritage Foundation, is the author of "Home Invasion: Protecting Your Family in a Culture that's Gone Stark Raving Mad" and runs the website HomeInvasion.org.

First appeared in the Washington Times