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Froma Harrop
Froma Harrop
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Defining Poverty in the Land of Plenty

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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!

To find out more about Froma Harrop, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.

COPYRIGHT 2011 THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL CO.

DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM



Comments

2 Comments | Post Comment
I think it varies from person to person. If I had to pay rent to somebody who wasn't a relative, I would be forced to pay some huge rent like $500 a month and would be on the street within a year. If these people consider A/C to be a luxury, maybe they can show me an apartment that doesn't have A/C. For that matter, any apartment that has a rent lower than my combined paychecks for the month would be nice.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Clucri
Fri Nov 11, 2011 6:47 AM
We try to quantify poverty for 2 reasons. First in an attempt to measure how our economy is doing, and second to benchmark an appropriate level of entitlements for "poor" people.

But we're misguided. We are best served by an economy that meets our basic nutritional, healthcare, and shelter needs without a ton of stress, while motivating us to be productive. Nobody wants people starving. Nobody wants people to suffer with communicable disease. And nobody wants people freezing to death. We all want the poorest of the poor to have the opportunity to better themselves. And yet we're arguing about air conditioners.
We try to quantify poverty for 2 reasons. First in an attempt to measure how our economy is doing, and second to benchmark an appropriate level of entitlements for "poor" people. But we're misguided. We are best served by an economy that meets our basic nutritional, healthcare, and shelter needs without a ton of stress, while motivating us to be productive. Nobody wants people starving. Nobody wants people to suffer with communicable disease. And nobody wants people freezing to death. We all want the poorest of the poor to have the opportunity to better themselves. And yet we're arguing about air conditioners.
We do absurd things like mandating a 3 bedroom apartment as a requirement for a single woman with a boy and girl (in some systems boys and girls can't share rooms), then putting her on a list that's years long in order to get that subsidized apartment. We provide the best health care - but then create all kinds of stressful hoops that a poor person has to jump through in order to get that health care. A poor single parent gets all kinds of benefits once they're "in the system", but we make it excruciatingly difficult and stressful for that single parent to keep the system happy and have her needs met. It's not an easy life. And there's always some kind of gray area. Is it wrong for a poor person receiving government assistance to have some luxuries? Does it depend on where they come from.
We need a different approach - where the economic measure of poverty is less important, where there's less debate about what people are entitled to, and where there's less confusion about what should be done by private charities and families vs. government programs.


Comment: #2
Posted by: rainbear
Sat Nov 12, 2011 7:47 AM
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