THE CENSUS BUREAU reports 36.5 million poor Americans in 1998, nearly 14 percent of our population.
Both historically and globally, poverty has meant living in destitution, something akin to what we see in India, Romania and Mexico. For our country, only a tiny fraction of the population shares anywhere near such a fate.
Robert Rector, a senior policy analyst at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, has compiled some little-known data from government reports in an article titled “The Myth of Widespread American Poverty.” Just in case you’re interested in checking out his figures, his sources are: the Department of Commerce, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Energy.
In 1995, 41 percent of all “poor” households owned their own homes. The average size of that home was three bedrooms, one-and-a-half bathrooms, a garage and a porch or patio. Three-quarters of a million “poor” owned homes worth over $150,000; some of those homes sported Jacuzzis and pools. The average “poor” American has one-third more living space than the average Japanese, 25 percent more than the average Frenchman, 40 percent more than the average Greek and four times more than the average Russian.
Seventy percent of “poor” households own a car; 27 percent own two or more cars. Ninety-seven percent have a color television; nearly half own two or more televisions. Two-thirds of “poor” households have air conditioning. By contrast, 30 years ago, only 36 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning. America’s “poor” people aren’t hungry, either. In fact, “poor” people are more likely to be overweight than higher-income people. The average consumption of proteins, vitamins and minerals is virtually the same for poor as middle-income children, and in most cases above government recommended minimums.
The Census Bureau does a grossly poor job measuring poverty for several reasons. First, it looks at only current income and ignores assets. Thus, a family of four living in a $300,000 house with $1 million dollars in the bank, as far as the Census Bureau is concerned, is poor if for some reason its income was less than $16,404 in 1997.
The Census Bureau also misses income. In 1995, the Census Bureau claimed that the lowest income fifth of households had an average income of $8,350. In the same year, the Department of Labor’s consumer expenditure survey showed that the same lowest fifth of households spent $14,607. The Labor Department’s survey shows $1.75 worth of spending for each $1 the Census Bureau claims that household possesses.
Real material poverty, to any significant degree, simply does not exist in the United States. The bulk of our “poor” live under conditions that would have been judged comfortable or even well-off a few generations ago. The nonsense maxim that “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer” just doesn’t stand up to the evidence. The fact is everyone has become richer.
Poverty of the spirit and dependency are today’s problems. Many people’s lifestyle choices doom their chances for upward mobility. They freely make devastating choices like dropping out of school, having illegitimate children, abusing drugs and alcohol, refusing to work, and engaging in criminal activity.
Focusing most of our attention on material poverty, to the neglect of spiritual poverty and dependency, is not the best way to help our more unfortunate brethren. But misleading Americans about material poverty provides federal budgets and programs that enhance the status and incomes of the poverty elite in charge of managing the poor.