Each year for the past two decades, the U.S. Census Bureau has reported that over 30 million Americans were living in “poverty.” In recent years, the Census has reported that one in seven Americans are poor. But what does it mean to be “poor” in America?
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, declaring that being poor in U.S. means being “unable to obtain the basic material necessities of life.” The news media amplify this idea: Most news stories on poverty feature homeless families, people living in crumbling shacks, or lines of the downtrodden eating in soup kitchens.
The actual living conditions of America’s poor are far different from these images. According to the government’s own survey data, in 2005, the average household defined as poor by the government lived in a house or apartment equipped with air conditioning and cable TV. The family had a car (a third of the poor have two or more cars). For entertainment, the household had two color televisions, a DVD player, and a VCR. If there were children in the home (especially boys), the family had a game system, such as an Xbox or PlayStation. In the kitchen, the household had a microwave, refrigerator, and an oven and stove. Other household conveniences included a clothes washer, clothes dryer, ceiling fans, a cordless phone, and a coffee maker.
The home of the average poor family was in good repair and not overcrowded. In fact, the typical poor American had more living space than the average European. (Note: that’s average European, not poor European.) The poor family was able to obtain medical care when needed. When asked, most poor families stated they had had sufficient funds during the past year to meet all essential needs.
By its own report, the family was not hungry. The average intake of protein, vitamins, and minerals by poor children is indistinguishable from children in the upper middle class, and, in most cases, is well above recommended norms. Poor boys today at ages 18 and 19 are actually taller and heavier than middle-class boys of similar age in the late 1950s, and are a full one inch taller and 10 pounds heavier than American soldiers who fought in World War II. The major dietary problem facing poor Americans is eating too much, not too little; the majority of poor adults, like most Americans, are overweight.
The living standards of the poor have improved steadily for many decades. In particular, as the prices of new consumer items fall, these conveniences become available throughout society, including poor households. Consumer items that were luxuries or significant purchases for the middle class a few decades ago have become commonplace among the poor. As a rule of thumb, poor households tend to obtain the latest conveniences about a dozen years after the middle class.
True, the average poor family, described above, does not represent every poor family. There is a range of living conditions among the poor. Some poor households fare better than the average household described above. Others are worse off.
Although the overwhelming majority of the poor are well housed, at any single point in time during the recession in 2009, around one in 70 poor persons was homeless. Although the majority of poor families have an adequate and reasonably steady supply of food, many worry about keeping food on the table, and one in five experienced temporary food shortages at various times in 2009. Those who are temporarily short on food or are homeless will find no comfort in the fact that their condition is relatively infrequent. Their distress is real and a serious concern.
Nonetheless, sound public policy cannot be based on faulty information or misunderstanding. Regrettably, most discussions of poverty in the U.S. rely on sensationalism, exaggeration, and misinformation. But an effective anti-poverty policy must be based on an accurate assessment of actual living conditions and the causes of deprivation. In the long term, grossly exaggerating the extent and severity of material deprivation in the U.S. will benefit neither the poor, the economy, nor society as a whole.
—Robert Rector is Senior Research Fellow in the Domestic Policy Studies Department, and Rachel Sheffield is a Research Assistant in the Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society, at The Heritage Foundation.