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Defining Poverty in the Land of Plenty

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The "poverty issue" opens a vast highway system of social and economic observations headed in every direction. Some say poverty is a national disgrace. Some say it's the poor people's own fault. Some say the government must end it through bigger subsidies and more services for the poor -- others by reducing that help and instead expanding economic opportunity.

The most interesting battle rages over the very definition of poverty in this land of plenty. Conservatives often argue that the official poverty line has been set too high. Many who live below it are actually doing reasonably well. Liberals frequently answer that, no, poverty is worse and more widespread than the government count would suggest.

Conservatives are right about one thing: The federal government's longtime metric for drawing the poverty line is primitive and does exaggerate the hardship felt in this country. (It is being replaced by a more sophisticated model, also controversial.) Amazingly, the old measurement doesn't count food stamps, tax credits and other government benefits in toting up incomes.

But while conservatives stand on solid ground in their complaints over how poverty gets determined, their broader arguments can be fairly heartless. One of them requires rummaging through poor people's possessions for signs of high living. That is neither nice nor revealing.

Case in point is a recent Heritage Foundation report holding that most Americans defined as poor really aren't. The evidence: In 2005, the typical "poor" household had a car and air conditioning. It had one or more color TVs, cable or satellite service and a DVD player. If there were children, it had a game system, such as Xbox or PlayStation.

We all get the point, made by authors Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield. But there's some missing information. Who bought the Xbox? (A friend who pitied the child?) Where was it bought? (Third-hand at the Salvation Army store?) When was it bought? (Two years earlier, before the parents were laid off?)

A long time ago, I lost a job, and my income plummeted. Had Rector and Sheffield opened my closet the day I collected my first unemployment check, they would have spotted a swell leather jacket and real pearls. I was hardly poor, but suddenly, paying the rent had become a concern.

The authors' list of "amenities" found in most poor households also irritates. It includes a refrigerator, stove and oven. This country is not Bangladesh or Albania, and so our definition of poverty need not compete with theirs. And whereas a car and air conditioning might be deemed nonessentials in San Francisco, that would be less the case in Phoenix. And Rector and Sheffield include "ceiling fans" among the amenities. Really.

As an example of how well our impoverished neighbors are doing, they offer this quote by scholar James Q. Wilson: "The poorest Americans today live a better life than all but the richest persons a hundred years ago." That may be true on a material level, but so what? Thomas Jefferson didn't have running water in his treasure-filled, 24-room mansion, Monticello. Should running water be considered a frill today?

Meanwhile, some aspects of the old poverty definition understate the adversity. It doesn't include money spent on taxes or health care, and it ignores regional differences in the cost of living. In 2009, the median rent in the Bronx was $875 a month. In Amarillo, Texas, it was $647.

Here's an experiment for our friends at The Heritage Foundation: Shut off the air conditioning at your Washington, D.C., headquarters for the month of August. Then come back and tell us whether a/c is a luxury. And no cheating with ceiling fans!

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