Study dismisses poverty, but try telling that to the poor

Courtland Milloy
Columnist September 13, 2011

As the fortunes of middle-class Americans continue to dwindle, some might be wondering what it’s like to be poor. A study released this year by the Heritage Foundation argues that living in poverty isn’t as bad as most of us imagine. Indeed, from the way poverty is portrayed by the conservative think tank, you’d think that the average poor person was actually living large.

“Poor children actually consume more meat than higher-income children consume, and their protein intake averages 100 percent above recommended levels,” wrote Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield, authors of the study: “Air Conditioning, Cable TV, and an Xbox: What is Poverty in the United States Today?”

“In fact,” they continued, “most poor children are super-nourished 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.”

Who knew? Good thing, too, since so many poor children end up fighting our wars.

By the researchers’ reckoning, we probably shouldn’t be too alarmed by the Census Bureau’s announcement Tuesday that the nation’s poverty rate rose from 14.3 percent in 2009 to 15.1 in 2010. And we probably shouldn’t fret that there are now more Americans living in poverty — 46.2 million — than at any other time in the past half-century.

Just numbers, they wrote dismissively of such poverty data. What the Census Bureau omits, they contended, is an accounting of the benefits that the poor receive from the “welfare state.” From what the government defines as poverty — for instance, a family of four with a household income of about $22,000 a year — a picture emerges of people who might well be regarded as rich anywhere else in the world.

In 2005, for instance, “the typical household defined as poor by the government had a car and air conditioning,” the researchers wrote. “For entertainment, the household had two color televisions, cable or satellite TV, a DVD player, and a VCR. If there were children, especially boys, in the home, the family had a game system, such as an Xbox or a PlayStation. In the kitchen, the household had a refrigerator, an oven and stove, and a microwave. Other household conveniences included a clothes washer, clothes dryer, ceiling fans, a cordless phone, and a coffee maker. The home of the typical poor family was not overcrowded and was in good repair. In fact, the typical poor American had more living space than the average European.”

Not bad. Maybe you lost your job and lost your house. Public housing has a stove, fridge and window unit; you got to bring the TV and coffee pot. Who needs money?

Because most poor people are relatively happy campers, then, the researchers contend that we can just ignore such people as Marian Wright Edelman, the president of the Children’s Defense Fund, who issued a statement Tuesday calling the latest poverty figures “grim,” “shameful” and “a national disgrace.” (According to the census, 16.4 million children were living in poverty in 2010, up by nearly a million from the year before.)

Ditto for claims by Catholic Charities USA. The Heritage researchers said such groups are just trying to “promote more welfare spending” when they advocate on behalf of the poor.

I asked Ron Haskins, an expert on poverty at the Brookings Institution, what he thought about the findings of his more-conservative counterparts.

“I think it’s important to bring up the fact that many of the poor are not hugely destitute — that they might not be poor in Somalia,” said Haskins, who, incidently, is a Republican. “But just citing how many televisions a person has doesn’t take into account the crisis caused by the sudden loss of income or how poverty in a society is almost always thought of in a relative way. When kids go to school and see how well other students are living, when they see the kinds of cars the well-to-do kids are driving and the kinds of clothes they are wearing, the difference in being a have-not among those who have becomes more striking.”

As the Heritage researchers see it, however, that sense of deprivation is not the same as poverty, nor is it even widespread. “Poor families certainly struggle to make ends meet, but in most cases, they are struggling to pay for air conditioning and the cable TV bill as well as to put food on the table.”

So fret not, poor folks. To join, or rejoin, the middle class, apparently all you have to do is drop Comcast or Fios and turn off the thermostat.

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