The Facts About Poverty in America

COMMENTARY Poverty and Inequality

The Facts About Poverty in America

Feb 7, 2012 5 min read
Robert Rector

Senior Research Fellow, Center for Health and Welfare Policy

Robert is a leading authority on poverty, welfare programs, and immigration in America.

Mitt Romney declared last week that, if elected president, he would focus on restoring the fortunes of the middle class, not the poor.  In a widely circulated remark, Romney said in an interview on CNN: “I’m not concerned about the very poor.  We have a safety net there.  If it is broke, I’ll fix it.”
Undoubtedly, Romney would like to rephrase his comment. On Friday, he said he misspoke. The facts about poverty, however, are clear: America’s poor are supported by an enormous and expensive government safety net. 
The federal government operates more than 70 means-tested welfare or anti-poverty programs, among them Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), the earned income credit, Supplemental Security Income, Food Stamps, the Women Infants and Children (WIC) food program, Medicaid, public housing, low-income energy assistance and the Social Service Block Grant.  These programs provide cash, food, housing, medical care and targeted services to poor and near-poor Americans.
In fiscal year 2011, federal and state government spent $910 billion on these programs.  (This sum does not include Social Security, Medicare or Unemployment Insurance.)  How much is $910 billion?  Well, that comes to around $9,000 for each lower-income American. 
Federal means-tested welfare spending has jumped 40 percent since President Obama took office.  Of course, it is not unreasonable for welfare spending to rise during a recession.   But the big secret is that, under Obama’s budget plans, this spending will not go back down when the recession ends.
According to the president’s budget documents, federal and state spending on means-tested programs will rise to $1.2 trillion per year by 2017.  In that year, the United States will spend two dollars on welfare for every dollar spent on national defense.  By 2021, welfare spending will hit $1.5 trillion per year.
If Obama has his way, taxpayers will pay $11.9 trillion for means-tested welfare programs over the next decade, financing the president’s goal to perpetually “spread the wealth.”   That’s about $350,000 in anti-poverty aid for each lower-income household in the U.S.
Discussions about welfare and poverty in America often are confused by a lack of understanding about what it means to be “poor” in the U.S.
Last year the Census Bureau reported that 46 million Americans were poor.  For most Americans, the word “poverty” suggests near destitution: an inability to provide one’s family with nutritious food, clothing and reasonable shelter. However, only a small number of the millions classified as “poor” by the government fit that description. Although real material hardship does occur, it is limited in scope and severity.
Here are some facts about persons defined as “poor” by the Census Bureau, taken from various government reports:

•    80 percent of poor households have air conditioning.
•    Nearly three-fourths have a car or truck, and 31 percent have two or more cars or trucks.
•    Nearly two-thirds have cable or satellite television.
•    Half have a personal computer, and one in seven have two or more computers.
•    43 percent have Internet access.
•    One-third have a wide-screen plasma or LCD television.
•    One-fourth have a digital video recorder system, such as a TiVo.
•    More than half of poor families with children have a video game system, such as an Xbox or PlayStation.
Although the mainstream media spread alarming stories about widespread hunger in the nation, in reality most of the poor do not experience hunger or food shortages. The U.S. Department of Agriculture tells us that 96 percent of poor parents report their children were never hungry at any time during the year because they couldn’t afford food. 
Government surveys show the average consumption of protein, vitamins and minerals is virtually the same for poor and middle-class children and well above recommended norms in most cases.  Even during the current recession, four out of five poor adults reported never being hungry anytime in the prior year due to lack of money for food.
Television newscasts about poverty generally portray the poor as homeless individuals or as a destitute family living in an overcrowded, dilapidated trailer. The actual facts are far different: Over the course of a year, just 4 percent of poor persons in the U.S. become temporarily homeless.
Only 9.5 percent of the poor live in mobile homes or trailers. By contrast, 90 percent live in single-family detached houses, townhouses or apartments. The homes of the poor are generally in good repair and rarely overcrowded. In fact, the typical poor American has a larger house or apartment than does the average non-poor person in Sweden, Germany, France or the United Kingdom.
Does the relative absence of material deprivation among the poor show that welfare state has been successful?  The answer is a qualified yes.  After all, not even the government can spend $9,000 per person annually without having some short-term impact on living conditions.
But to truly assess the welfare state, we need to remember Lyndon B. Johnson’s original goal in launching the War on Poverty in 1964.  President Johnson said his objective was to remove “the causes, not just the consequences of poverty.”  He proclaimed: “Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.”
LBJ wasn’t proposing a massive system of ever-increasing welfare benefits, doled out to an ever-growing population of beneficiaries. His actual goal was to increase self-sufficiency in future generations, to enable Americans to lift themselves out of poverty without government handouts. He actually promised to reduce, not increase, welfare dependence. He sought to transform the dependent poor by removing their need for aid and making “taxpayers out of tax-eaters.”
Judged by those standards, the War on Poverty has been an astonishing failure.   Taxpayers have spent over $17 trillion on means-tested welfare, but the poor are less capable of Johnson’s original aim of self-sufficient prosperity than when the War on Poverty began nearly 50 years ago.
The American work ethic has eroded. Even in the best of economic times, the poor work very little.  Worse, marriage has collapsed in low-income communities.  At the outset of the War on Poverty, 7 percent of children were born outside marriage; today, the annual rate is 42 percent.  The disappearance of marriage is the principal cause of child poverty and welfare dependence today. 
Tragically, the welfare system is more like a “safety bog” than a safety net.  Serving as an alternative to self-support, welfare has eroded work and crushed family structure.  Rather than lifting up the poor, the welfare state has pushed them down into intergenerational dependence and social marginality. 
What is to be done?  The answer is to resurrect Johnson’s original goal.  Welfare’s aim should not be to provide ever greater government hand-outs.  Instead, we should focus on promoting prosperous self-sufficiency, increasing the number of Americans who can support themselves above poverty without welfare. 
Work is key.  When the economy revives, able-bodied recipients of means-tested welfare aid should be required to work or prepare for work as a condition of receiving aid.  Even more important is the restoration of strong, healthy families. Our nation should eliminate penalties against marriage in welfare programs and launch a proactive campaign to restore marriage in communities where it has vanished.
The current welfare system has served neither the poor nor the taxpayer well.   The answer is not to spend more, but to completely overhaul the system.

Robert Rector, a leading authority on poverty and the welfare system, is senior research fellow in domestic policy at The Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in Human Events