Monday, February 12, 2007

Poverty in America

Out of a lunch discussion with another one of the group, I wanted to put up a couple thoughts on poverty in America. First, I think this post over at Free Exchange frames our discussion well:

Now that poverty means a risk of obesity, rather than starvation, it is harder to decide what constitutes the minimal decent standard of living a society should provide. On the one hand, there are those who feel that the minimum should basically be some fixed fraction of the top incomes—in essence, that it is indecent for anyone to be more than X times richer than the worst off. On the other hand, there are those who believe, as P.J. O'Rourke so pithily put it, that "the biblical injunction is to clothe the poor, not style them." For those people, once society has made sure you have three squares, a roof over your head (okay, with electricity and plumbing), and something to keep the wind and rain off your skin, then you've got all you're entitled too.

This seems to me much too narrow; after all, we could take care of that by putting everyone without a well-paying job in prison. Other things matter too, like the opportunity to fulfill ones potentials. But which things, exactly? I am still working that bit out.

With that in mind, I think it is important to note that the term poverty is unfortunately ambiguous. When I served in the Peace Corps poverty meant something far different from what it means in America. The best way to understand this is to separate from absolute poverty from relative poverty. Absolute poverty is lacking the means to meet basic human needs such as shelter and food. While around 1 billion people in the world still suffer in absolute poverty, almost no one in the United States does for an extended period of time. According to the USDA, less than .5% of Americans on any given day suffer hunger due to lack of funds for food. It would be wonderful to get that done to zero, but it is at a level now where community service groups, churches, non-profits, and food kitchens can generally provide for the small number of people who need food on any given day. Furthermore, Eighty-nine percent of the poor report their families have "enough" food to eat, while only 2 percent say they "often" do not have enough to eat.

To get a better picture of Americans who live below the poverty line, here are some statistics from the Census Bureau:
  • Forty-six 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.
  • Seventy-six percent of poor households have air conditioning. By contrast, 30 years ago, 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.
  • Nearly three-quarters of poor households own a car; 30 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.
  • Seventy-three percent own microwave ovens, more than half have a stereo, and a third have an automatic dishwasher.
  • Since America (and much of the developed world) does not really suffer from existential threats due to a lack of funds, our discussion on poverty is much different than an international focus on third world poverty. Americans worry about relative poverty. This is a much more difficult issue, because whereas everyone agrees that people living in conditions that are practically inhospitable is not to be tolerated, there is a healthy debate as to what an acceptable level of relative poverty a meritocratic society can or should have. I leave that discussion for later. Here I merely want to point out something I have found to be true talking to many people about poverty. Specifically, the American measurement of poverty includes many people who most Americans would not consider poor.

    What Is Poverty?

    For most Americans, the word "poverty" suggests destitution: an inability to provide a family with nutritious food, clothing, and reasonable shelter. For example, the "Poverty Pulse" poll taken by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development in 2002 asked the general public the question: "How would you describe being poor in the U.S.?" The overwhelming majority of responses focused on homelessness, hunger or not being able to eat properly, and not being able to meet basic needs.

    But if poverty means lacking nutritious food, adequate warm housing, and clothing for a family, relatively few of the 35 million people identified as being "in poverty" by the Census Bureau could be characterized as poor. While material hardship does exist in the United States, it is quite restricted in scope and severity. The average "poor" person, as defined by the government, has a living standard far higher than the public imagines.

    So the original discussion at lunch considered whether the income level that defines poverty in America should be raised in order for more Americans to be considered poor and collect more government services. I think an interesting argument could be made in the opposite direction that the current income level the defines poverty does not accord with what most Americans consider to be poverty. The issues of the working class are more important now that welfare reform has enabled many formerly poor to become contributing members of society. But those issues are distinct from hunger, homelessness, and underclass that have become less acute as the nation has grown richer. Perhaps it is time to redefine poor in a way that comports with common impressions and work on policies that address low-income workers who often do not consider themselves "in poverty."

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