Thursday, September 23, 2010

Some Perspective on American Poverty

As predicted three days ago, the announced recent spike in the official poverty rate has already led to vague calls that politicians need to focus on and do more to fix the problem of poverty. It certainly makes sense to think long and hard about which institutions promote prosperity and which hinder it and, hence, make poverty more persistent. At the same time, it is also important that we do not get misled by government statistics into ever more interventionist policies to fix a problem that might be more phantom than real.

When we hear the word 'poor' it is natural to think of images of children who suffer from malnutrition, have little if any shelter, and very few and tattered articles of clothing. In other words, we think of real, dire poverty. As I pointed out a number of years ago in an article I wrote about the minimum wage, it turns out that the official poor in the U.S. are not that destitute. I drew upon the research of the Heritage Foundation's Robert Rector who has documented the material prosperity of our nation's officially poor people. In his most recent study, Rector tells us:
The following are facts about persons defined as "poor" by the Census Bureau, taken from various government reports:
  • Forty-three percent of all poor households actually own their own homes. The average home owned by persons classified as poor by the Census Bureau is a three-bedroom house with one-and-a-half baths, a garage, and a porch or patio.
  • Eighty percent of poor households have air conditioning. By contrast, in 1970, only 36 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.
  • Only 6 percent of poor households are overcrowded. More than two-thirds have more than two rooms per person.
  • The average poor American has more living space than the average individual living in Paris, London, Vienna, Athens, and other cities throughout Europe. (These comparisons are to the average citizens in foreign countries, not to those classified as poor.)
  • Nearly three-quarters of poor households own a car; 31 percent own two or more cars.
  • Ninety-seven percent of poor households have a color television; over half own two or more color televisions.
  • Seventy-eight percent have a VCR or DVD player; 62 percent have cable or satellite TV reception.
  • Eighty-nine percent own microwave ovens, more than half have a stereo, and more than a third have an automatic dishwasher.
As a group, America's poor are far from being chronically undernourished. The average consumption of protein, vitamins, and minerals is virtually the same for poor and middle-class children and, in most cases, is well above recommended norms. Poor children actually consume more meat than do higher-income children and have average protein intakes 100 percent above recommended levels. Most poor children today are, in fact, supernourished and grow up to be, on average, one inch taller and 10 pounds heavier than the GIs who stormed the beaches of Normandy in World War II.

We should never minimize the challenges facing those who live in real poverty. However, we should also have an accurate picture of the actual economic condition of the typical person declared poor by the U.S. Census Bureau.

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