Poverty in America

We are told that 30 million Americans live in poverty, but what exactly does “poverty” mean in America. Heritage’s Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield examine the record and report that it’s not quite what you might think:


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 washer and 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 average 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 authors argue persuasively that the President and advocates like Marion Wright Edelman  blur the distinction between poverty and deprivation and that the new standards advocated by the President deal not with ameliorating actual deprivation . They are income redistribution measures, plain and simple. Distinguishing between those who meet the current or proposed new “poverty ” test and those actually living in deprivation may shrink the one trillion dollar poverty budget but is the only way to  ease the plight of those actually living in deprivation:

Those who are without food or homeless will find no comfort in the fact that their condition is relatively infrequent. Their distress is real and a serious concern.

Nonetheless, wise public policy cannot be based on misinformation or misunderstanding. 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.



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