Understanding Poverty in the U.S.

COMMENTARY Poverty and Inequality

Understanding Poverty in the U.S.

Sep 13, 2011 3 min read

Commentary By

Rachel Sheffield @RachelSheffiel2

Research Fellow, Center for Health and Welfare Policy

Robert Rector

Senior Research Fellow, Center for Health and Welfare Policy

The U.S. Census Bureau’s annual poverty report, released this morning, found that 46.2 million Americans, or one in seven of us, were poor in 2010. The prolonged recession, with its high levels of unemployment, clearly has swollen the ranks of the poor.

But high numbers for poverty as defined by the Census Bureau predates the current recession. In most years for the past two decades, in fact, the Census Bureau declared that more than 35 million Americans were “living in poverty.” Last year’s number was 43.5 million.

These figures sound ominous. But do we really understand poverty in the United States? What does it mean to be poor?

To the average American, the word “poverty” implies significant material deprivation, an inability to provide a family with adequate nutritious food, reasonable shelter and clothing.

Activists reinforce this view, characteristically declaring that to be poor in America means being “unable to obtain the basic material necessities of life.” The old-stream news media traditionally amplify this idea: Most news stories on poverty feature homeless families, people living in crumbling shacks, or lines of the downtrodden waiting to eat in soup kitchens.

But the actual living conditions of most of America’s poor—that is, the poor as defined by the Census Bureau—differ greatly from these images, as we document in a new research paper from The Heritage Foundation called "Understanding Poverty in the United States: Surprising Facts about America’s Poor."

This is in part because in calculating income the government agency doesn’t count most means-tested welfare assistance --on track to top $1 trillion this decade alone -- and in part because of exaggerated depictions of the poor.

According to data compiled by other government agencies, the typical household considered “poor” by census officials has a car and air conditioning. For entertainment, the household has cable or satellite TV, two color televisions, a DVD player and a VCR. If children (especially boys) are in the home, they have a video game system such as Xbox or PlayStation. In the kitchen, the household has the ordinary conveniences: refrigerator, oven, stove, microwave.

Half the poor now have a personal computer. A third have a widescreen TV (plasma or LCD); a quarter have a digital video recorder such as TiVo.

In all these cases, U.S. Department of Energy data say so. Consumer items that were luxuries or significant purchases for the middle class a few decades ago have become commonplace in households defined by the Census Bureau as poor. In part, this is a result of the normal downward trend of prices in the years after a product is introduced. Initially, new products tend to be expensive and available only to the affluent; over time prices fall sharply, and the product saturates the entire population.

The Left uses the declining relative prices of many amenities to argue that it’s no big deal that poor households have air conditioning, computers, cable TV and widescreen televisions. They argue that even though most poor families have a house full of modern conveniences, the average poor family still suffers from substantial deprivation in basic needs such as food and housing.

Fortunately, that’s not the case.

Let’s look at housing. The old-stream media usually present America’s poor living in real deprivation: a large family crowded into a leaky, rundown trailer, for example. But only a tenth of the poor live in mobile homes, according to government data; half live in single-family houses and the remaining 40 percent live in apartments.

These homes in most cases are in good repair and almost never overcrowded, according to the government’s own statistics. Poor Americans, on average, live in larger houses or apartments than does the average, non-poor individual living in Sweden, France, Germany or the United Kingdom.

The media cry with alarm that “nearly one in four kids” in the nation are hungry. Again, government data show otherwise. Fully 96 percent of poor parents stated that their children were never hungry at any time during 2009, despite the severity of the recession, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Of course, these facts don’t mean that all poor Americans escape hardship. Although the overwhelming majority of the poor are well-housed, around one in 70 poor persons was homeless at any specific time during the last year, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

And although the majority of poor families have an adequate, reasonably steady supply of food, many worry about keeping food on the table. One in five poor adults experienced temporary food shortages and hunger at various times during the year.

Those who are temporarily hungry or homeless will find no comfort in the fact that their condition is relatively infrequent. Their distress must be a real and serious concern for policy makers.

Regrettably, however, most discussions of poverty in the U.S. are riddled with exaggeration and misinformation. Effective anti-poverty policy must be based on an accurate assessment of actual living conditions and the long-term causes of real deprivation—especially the collapse of marriage and erosion of the work ethic.

Over the long haul, as we conclude in “Understanding Poverty in the United States,” grossly exaggerating the extent and severity of material deprivation won’t benefit the poor, the economy and our society as a whole.

Robert Rector is senior research fellow in domestic policy at The Heritage Foundation, where Rachel Sheffield is a research assistant.

First appeared in Real Clear Politics