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Walter Williams
Walter E. Williams
10 Feb 2016
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Where Best To Be Poor


Imagine you are an unborn spirit whom God has condemned to a life of poverty but has permitted to choose the nation in which to live. I'm betting that most any such condemned unborn spirit would choose the United States. Why? What has historically been defined as poverty, nationally or internationally, no longer exists in the U.S. Let's look at it.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the 2009 poverty guideline was $22,000 for an urban four-person family. In 2009, having income less than that, 15 percent or 40 million Americans were classified as poor, but there's something unique about those "poor" people not seen anywhere else in the world. Robert Rector, researcher at the Heritage Foundation, presents data collected from several government sources in a report titled "How Poor Are America's Poor? Examining the 'Plague' of Poverty in America" (8/27/2007):

— 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; two-thirds have more than two rooms per person.

— The typical 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 a more than a third have an automatic dishwasher.

What's defined as poverty is misleading in another way.

Official poverty measures count just family's cash income. It ignores additional sources of support such as the earned-income tax credit, which is a cash rebate to low-income workers; it ignores Medicaid, housing allowances, food stamps and other federal and local government subsidies to the poor. According to a report by American Enterprise Institute scholar Nicholas Eberstadt, titled "Poor Statistics," "In 2006, according to the annual Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey, reported purchases by the poorest fifth of American households were more than twice as high as reported incomes." That additional money might represent earnings from unreported employment, illegal activities and unreported financial assistance. A proper measure of well-being is what a person consumes rather than his income. A huge gap has emerged between income and consumption at lower income levels.

Material poverty can be measured relatively or absolutely. An absolute measure would consist of some minimum quantity of goods and services deemed adequate for a baseline level of survival. Achieving that level means that poverty has been eliminated. However, if poverty is defined as, say, the lowest one-fifth of the income distribution, it is impossible to eliminate poverty. Everyone's income could double, triple and quadruple, but there will always be the lowest one-fifth.

Yesterday's material poverty is all but gone. In all too many cases, it has been replaced by a more debilitating kind of poverty — behavioral poverty or poverty of the spirit. This kind of poverty refers to conduct and values that prevent the development of healthy families, work ethic and self-sufficiency. The absence of these values virtually guarantees pathological lifestyles that include: drug and alcohol addiction, crime, violence, incarceration, illegitimacy, single-parent households, dependency and erosion of work ethic. Poverty of the spirit is a direct result of the perverse incentives created by some of our efforts to address material poverty.

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University. To find out more about Walter E. Williams and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at



5 Comments | Post Comment
I rarely disagree with you ... and this is really nitpicky. Clearly the US *IS* the best place to be poor, but I disagree that consumer spending is a better measure of income.
Credit is way to easy to get, even in today's economy. This makes it easy to spend way more than you earn. It's this philosophy on a grander scale that has our government in the predicament that it is currently in.
Alternatively, cheapskates (like myself) sometimes save 60% or more of income -- making consumer spending an inaccurate measure for us as well.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Spork
Wed Jun 30, 2010 6:54 AM
Good Article, Walter Williams. I thought your readers might enjoy my latest article, since America no longer has Leaders and hasn't had for over five (5) decades.

Would you send a “Fox to Guard your Hen House?” I don't think so! “Leaders
move government reform through legislature” is a real joke. America has
no Leaders? For past five decades politicians' “reform” created ‘doomsday' for
workers after selling them out for bigger retirement accounts. Think about Nafta,
Cafta and their “reform”. The only thing we're servicing is unemployment, social
and welfare programs. What a pity the politicians have been allowed to take
control, selling Americans out, one job at a time, thus bankrupting America!

The latest “the Healthy School Meals Act #4870" that would reward schools and
fight obesity! Taxpayers have heard it all, now! Their “Too Fat to Fight” and unfit
for military is the reason politicians know how to gain more control over your
children. Parents surely knew this would mean they no longer control. Folks, this
is how bigger government works. These programs don't work, never have, never

While I'm on a roll, isn't it about time to sell politicians, of all party affiliations, a
one-way ticket to GITMO, take all their assets to pay for the trillions they've
borrowed without Taxpayers consent. This ‘reform' for over five decades created
huge government that borrowed from foreign countries, left IOU's in Social
Security that belonged to Taxpayers, and spun America into an oblivion!

Maybe the Governor of California has the right idea. With no budgets, minimum
wage in place. Brilliant! Local, state, and federal people, took government jobs
for security reasons. Like all politicians, decided their salaries, all benefits, and
retirements, should be higher than private sector and paid for by Taxpayers that
were earning a little more than the minimum wage.

Time to Wake up, America!

Comment: #2
Posted by: Shirley deLong
Fri Jul 2, 2010 9:07 AM
I just got done watching What's Great About America on Fox News. this column accentuates another great thing about America.
Comment: #3
Posted by: davideowen
Sun Jul 4, 2010 4:16 PM
Re: Spork

I don't know where you came up with consumer spending but his point is not about consumer spending, it's about purchasing power. Not only are all of these things freely available to us, they are made affordable for everyone, even despite the effects of ill-manufactured credit (for which we will pay dearly for a couple of decades if not more). The poor here aren't struggling for their necessities like those in other countries, so comparing our 'poor' to those in the rest of the world is quite absurd.
Comment: #4
Posted by: Eric Evans
Mon Jul 5, 2010 9:33 AM
Eric, I came up with consumer spending from reading the article. If you'll re-read my comment, you'll notice that I said it was a nitpicky disagreement and I agreed that clearly the US *IS* the best place to be poor. My point is that consumer spending is not a good measure of wealth -- for either the rich or the poor -- as was implied by the article.
Comment: #5
Posted by: Spork
Wed Jul 7, 2010 6:33 AM
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