Economy & Budget

The facts about poverty in America

Mitt Romney declared last week that, if elected president, he would focus on restoring the fortunes of the middle class, not the poor.  In a widely circulated remark, Romney said in an interview on CNN: “I’m not concerned about the very poor.  We have a safety net there.  If it is broke, I’ll fix it.”
Undoubtedly, Romney would like to rephrase his comment. On Friday, he said he misspoke. The facts about poverty, however, are clear: America’s poor are supported by an enormous and expensive government safety net. 
The federal government operates more than 70 means-tested welfare or anti-poverty programs, among them Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), the earned income credit, Supplemental Security Income, Food Stamps, the Women Infants and Children (WIC) food program, Medicaid, public housing, low-income energy assistance and the Social Service Block Grant.  These programs provide cash, food, housing, medical care and targeted services to poor and near-poor Americans.
In fiscal year 2011, federal and state government spent $910 billion on these programs.  (This sum does not include Social Security, Medicare or Unemployment Insurance.)  How much is $910 billion?  Well, that comes to around $9,000 for each lower-income American. 
Federal means-tested welfare spending has jumped 40 percent since President Obama took office.  Of course, it is not unreasonable for welfare spending to rise during a recession.   But the big secret is that, under Obama’s budget plans, this spending will not go back down when the recession ends.
According to the president’s budget documents, federal and state spending on means-tested programs will rise to $1.2 trillion per year by 2017.  In that year, the United States will spend two dollars on welfare for every dollar spent on national defense.  By 2021, welfare spending will hit $1.5 trillion per year.
If Obama has his way, taxpayers will pay $11.9 trillion for means-tested welfare programs over the next decade, financing the president’s goal to perpetually “spread the wealth.”   That’s about $350,000 in anti-poverty aid for each lower-income household in the U.S.
Discussions about welfare and poverty in America often are confused by a lack of understanding about what it means to be “poor” in the U.S.
Last year the Census Bureau reported that 46 million Americans were poor.  For most Americans, the word “poverty” suggests near destitution: an inability to provide one’s family with nutritious food, clothing and reasonable shelter. However, only a small number of the millions classified as “poor” by the government fit that description. Although real material hardship does occur, it is limited in scope and severity.
Here are some facts about persons defined as “poor” by the Census Bureau, taken from various government reports:

•    80 percent of poor households have air conditioning.
•    Nearly three-fourths have a car or truck, and 31 percent have two or more cars or trucks.
•    Nearly two-thirds have cable or satellite television.
•    Half have a personal computer, and one in seven have two or more computers.
•    43 percent have Internet access.
•    One-third have a wide-screen plasma or LCD television.
•    One-fourth have a digital video recorder system, such as a TiVo.
•    More than half of poor families with children have a video game system, such as an Xbox or PlayStation.
Although the mainstream media spread alarming stories about widespread hunger in the nation, in reality most of the poor do not experience hunger or food shortages. The U.S. Department of Agriculture tells us that 96 percent of poor parents report their children were never hungry at any time during the year because they couldn’t afford food. 
Government surveys show the average consumption of protein, vitamins and minerals is virtually the same for poor and middle-class children and well above recommended norms in most cases.  Even during the current recession, four out of five poor adults reported never being hungry anytime in the prior year due to lack of money for food.
Television newscasts about poverty generally portray the poor as homeless individuals or as a destitute family living in an overcrowded, dilapidated trailer. The actual facts are far different: Over the course of a year, just 4 percent of poor persons in the U.S. become temporarily homeless.
Only 9.5 percent of the poor live in mobile homes or trailers. By contrast, 90 percent live in single-family detached houses, townhouses or apartments. The homes of the poor are generally in good repair and rarely overcrowded. In fact, the typical poor American has a larger house or apartment than does the average non-poor person in Sweden, Germany, France or the United Kingdom.
Does the relative absence of material deprivation among the poor show that welfare state has been successful?  The answer is a qualified yes.  After all, not even the government can spend $9,000 per person annually without having some short-term impact on living conditions.
But to truly assess the welfare state, we need to remember Lyndon B. Johnson’s original goal in launching the War on Poverty in 1964.  President Johnson said his objective was to remove “the causes, not just the consequences of poverty.”  He proclaimed: “Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.”
LBJ wasn’t proposing a massive system of ever-increasing welfare benefits, doled out to an ever-growing population of beneficiaries. His actual goal was to increase self-sufficiency in future generations, to enable Americans to lift themselves out of poverty without government handouts. He actually promised to reduce, not increase, welfare dependence. He sought to transform the dependent poor by removing their need for aid and making “taxpayers out of tax-eaters.”
Judged by those standards, the War on Poverty has been an astonishing failure.   Taxpayers have spent over $17 trillion on means-tested welfare, but the poor are less capable of Johnson’s original aim of self-sufficient prosperity than when the War on Poverty began nearly 50 years ago.
The American work ethic has eroded. Even in the best of economic times, the poor work very little.  Worse, marriage has collapsed in low-income communities.  At the outset of the War on Poverty, 7 percent of children were born outside marriage; today, the annual rate is 42 percent.  The disappearance of marriage is the principal cause of child poverty and welfare dependence today. 
Tragically, the welfare system is more like a “safety bog” than a safety net.  Serving as an alternative to self-support, welfare has eroded work and crushed family structure.  Rather than lifting up the poor, the welfare state has pushed them down into intergenerational dependence and social marginality. 
What is to be done?  The answer is to resurrect Johnson’s original goal.  Welfare’s aim should not be to provide ever greater government hand-outs.  Instead, we should focus on promoting prosperous self-sufficiency, increasing the number of Americans who can support themselves above poverty without welfare. 
Work is key.  When the economy revives, able-bodied recipients of means-tested welfare aid should be required to work or prepare for work as a condition of receiving aid.  Even more important is the restoration of strong, healthy families. Our nation should eliminate penalties against marriage in welfare programs and launch a proactive campaign to restore marriage in communities where it has vanished.
The current welfare system has served neither the poor nor the taxpayer well.   The answer is not to spend more, but to completely overhaul the system.

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  • Rick Blaine

    80 percent of poor households have air conditioning.
    •    Nearly three-fourths have a car or truck, and 31 percent have two or more cars or trucks.
    •    Nearly two-thirds have cable or satellite television.
    •    Half have a personal computer, and one in seven have two or more computers.
    •    43 percent have Internet access.
    •    One-third have a wide-screen plasma or LCD television.
    •    One-fourth have a digital video recorder system, such as a TiVo.
    •    More than half of poor families with children have a video game system, such as an Xbox or PlayStation.

    And I say that is too much. We want our poor to be destitute. Like in India. Why, air conditioning? That’s preposterous to think a poor person would want to stay alive when it’s 110 degrees in Dallas.  And a car? What do they need cars for? Let them use the wonderful and modern European style mass transit systems that we have. And a computer? Next thing you know they’ll want phones.Who do they think they are? Rich?

  • Niniane

    The system depends on an individual’s honesty, and there are few honest people left in the system, including politicians. There are many examples of this with illegal aliens: mama, pregnant again, goes for public assistance, claiming she has no man in the house to help  support her and the kids. She gets everything. Meanwhile, papa is working under the table and sending remittances home, since mama has all the bills covered gratis the tax dollar. (I saw this myself when a family went through the grocery checkout line and paid with WIC and foodstamps. Following them outside, they loaded the groceries and kids — plus a case of imported beer papa bought with cash — into a new Mercedes SUV.)

  • Dave D

    Spot on!  Everyone should support the plans to round up and ship the recipients of social security and other welfare to a work camp where they will be sterilized to stop the cycle, 

  • Confused

    Dear Rick,
    There are millions of tax paying families that lack a number of the items you listed in your post.  They pay for these, along with everyone else, for people who do not pay taxes.
    On behalf of all the taxpayers, please feel free to fund as many people as you would like with luxury items, items that contribute significantly to the lack of desire to better one’s self.

    Thanks ahead of time from those that actually care about these folks, not those who want to keep them living in dependency.

  • 1uncle

     Let’s solve the problem by not letting the poorly educated support themselves by having babies who will be just like their parents and by  not allowing more tax users into an overpopulated country.

  • Major914

    As someone who also operates as a sole proprietorship, I can say that the issue is complex and needs a greater depth of attention. In an increasingly service-oriented economy, so many jobs are essentially low-wage dead-end positions. As a small operation, I have an outstanding need to cover risk–hence its more difficult to commit to paying a good salary steadily over time. In truth, in a service economy, the barriers to entry are relatively low, and the wages are often very low–so the economic distance between an entrepreneur and the wage-earner working for him is often large, but the line seperating the worker from occupying the same position in the market is relatively thin. Not everyone wants to be an entrepreneur, but most people aren’t going to work wholeheartedly at low-wage dead-end jobs either. Personally, I can’t blame them. I think we have a potential era of growth remaining–though not necessarily as much as the free trade people think–but as our economy matures, structural income inequality will become a more pressing issue. We’d better get on the ball, and get the most productive growth we can while the getting is good–capacity will continue to trend towards outstripping demand in the long run…

  • Liberal Soup N Crackers

    Let them live with you.

  • Wil

    (I saw this myself when a family went through the grocery checkout line and paid with WIC and foodstamps. Following them outside, they loaded the groceries and kids — plus a case of imported beer papa bought with cash — into a new Mercedes SUV.)>>


  • jagscl

    You’ve got it right.  Only by setting up a system where at some point a person must take any job offered and stay employed for a specified period of time before eligible for any further assistance can you move people from dependency.  To allow someone to just sit and cash the checks guarantees a dependency.  It will do nothing to createa work ethic.

  • DanB_Tiffin

    Wil the limousine liberal, who doesn’t know anything about life outside of his lilly white suburb, calls someone else a liar. What a joke! Sorry to put a little reality into your silly fantasy.

  • DanB_Tiffin

    The real problem the USA faces is the sniveling liberal problem. People like you who see victims behind every tree and behind every rock. What a phoney. Go help them yourself, thief, but use your own money for a change.

  • DanB_Tiffin

    Like all other human beings, the modern liberal reveals his true character, including his madness, in what he values and devalues, in what he articulates with passion.
    . . .
    What the liberal mind is passionate about is a world filled with pity, sorrow, neediness, misfortune, poverty, suspicion, mistrust, anger, exploitation, discrimination, victimization, alienation and injustice. Those who occupy this world are ”workers,” ”minorities,” ”the little guy,” ”women,” and the ”unemployed.” They are poor, weak, sick, wronged, cheated, oppressed, disenfranchised, exploited and victimized. They bear no responsibility for their problems. None of their agonies are attributable to faults or failings of their own: not to poor choices, bad habits, faulty judgment, wishful thinking, lack of ambition, low frustration tolerance, mental illness or defects in character. None of the victims’ plight is caused by failure to plan for the future or learn from experience. Instead, the ”root causes” of all this pain lie in faulty social conditions: poverty, disease, war, ignorance, unemployment, racial prejudice, ethnic and gender discrimination, modern technology, capitalism, globalization and imperialism. In the radical liberal mind, this suffering is inflicted on the innocent by various predators and persecutors: ”Big Business,” ”Big Corporations,” ”greedy capitalists, ”U.S. Imperialists,” ”the oppressors,” ”the rich,” ”the wealthy,” ”the powerful” and ”the selfish.”
    Lyle H. Rossiter, Jr., M.D. ‘‘The Liberal Mind The Psychological Causes of Political Madness’’ 2006pp 328-329:

  • Hominid

    Sometimes it’s more than cradle-to-grave — sometimes it’s a multigenerational welfare.

    Here’s a question for ya – What happens when after going through your proposed program, the lazy, irresponsible, dummies with four kids are unable to hold jobs? Are they cut off and left to starve?

  • Hominid

    What happens when after going through Mad’s program, the lazy, irresponsible, dummies with four kids are unable to hold jobs? Are they cut off and left to starve?

  • Hominid

    This a great point that is overlooked.  I know a couple with two small kids.  Mom & dad both work full time (and always have) and gross about $55K/yr.  After taxes, they can afford to rent a modest house and drive one 14 yr old car, basic groceries, and daycare.  They can’t afford TV or video games and have to skimp on everything.  They just make ends meet.  They have never received gov assistance.  A welfare queen with four kids has all her expenses covered including luxury items to the equivalent of at least $60K/yr salary.  It’s disgraceful.

  • StackoLee

    The right to vote is so inextricably associated with the notion of Liberty that there can be absolutely no valid reason to deny an American Citizen his/her right to vote except for criminal behavior and the like.  A suggestion that the right to vote be contingent on anything except American Citizenship suggests a shallow understanding of the notion of ‘Absolute Liberty’ and what Liberty means not only to the individual Citizen, but to America as a Nation. American ‘exceptionalism’ is not free.

  • StackoLee

    Having children is inexorably associated with Liberty and Equality and constitutes a fundamental right of all American Citizens.  As in “Certain Inalienable rights and privileges” – all American Citizens are equal under the law and Equal with regard to these rights and privileges.  That is the very spirit of America – and that these rights and privileges are unique such that “You can not surrender, sell or transfer unalienable rights, they are a gift from the creator to the individual and can not under any circumstances be surrendered or taken.”.  That is a fundamentally American idea and value and part of what makes America exceptional.  To deny such a notion is to compromise what America is, to compromise the kind of Nation we live in.  Because of their inherent and absolute value, America chooses to seek to achieve and maintain Liberty and Equality at all costs.  Liberty and Equality can NOT be compromised, even to achieve highly desirable goals.    American ‘exceptionalism’ is not free. 

    Ideas like prohibiting any Citizen from having children suggests a shallow understanding of the notion of ‘Absolute Liberty’ and what Liberty means not only to the individual Citizen, but to America as a Nation.  If we are to be a nation existing under ideals like Equality and Liberty, these values must apply to every single American Citizen. Living in such a nation means that some Citizens ‘get away’ with behavior others judge to be deserving of punishment or the withholding of certain privileges.  In America, one Citizen does not get to judge another nor deprive another Citizen of any right to which ALL Citizens are entitled or any privilege with which ALL Citizens are endowed.  Nations that ‘compromise’ Liberty and Equality actually destroy them trying.  The fact that lesser countries behave this way is the very reason they are lesser. America is exceptional by recognizing that such compromise is impossible.  You cannot force God-given and inalienable rights to become ALIENABLE without fundamentally changing the Nation for the worse.

  • StackoLee

    A very UN-American idea…

  • deeme

    Yeah stacko is that outrage I hear…well guess what that’s what I  have too..I’m pro-life but see no difference in this language then the language that is being targeted at many right now..So have at it..Yeah I could say the same thing about the right to live!!

  • StackoLee

    This focus on what they BUY and HAVE instead of focusing solely on the facts and figures about what they cost and what they spend is Judgmental.

    The constant fixation on what the poor buy and have it reflects this tendency of the non-poor to JUDGE the poor as if they were inferior.  That goes against the very American notion of Equality and is a dangerous tendency.  Why the focus on Judgmental conclusions rather than focussing on exactly how it affects each of us and to what extent, then address the numbers, not the groceries.

    I understand that what they buy and have reflects how much they cost us and how much they spend, but the question is how does that give one American the right to Judge another?  Why not focus on the Math instead?  Americans do not get to Judge other Americans.  It’s almost a cliche’ to say ‘If you judge them is it OK for everyone to Judge you?’.  An argument that every non-rich Citizen is somehow subsidized wouldn’t be hard to make and that seems to be the sole argument non-poor have for judging the poor.  The vast majority of the poor are not dishonest theives and are full-fledged American Citizens, absolutely Equal under the law and entitled to the same Liberty as all of us.

    Sure, plenty of poor people scam and ‘game’ the system, to be sure.  But plenty do not – there are decent, honest poor people just as there are decent, honest middle class.  And of course there are dishonest, thieving middle class just as the same is true for the poor (never mind those on Wall Street who have abused the system, etc.).  In every instance they give the group a bad name, but the poor especially.  No American has the right to truly Judge the poor and to come into an American Citizens house, inspect what they choose to buy, inspect their children’s games and toys, inspect their garage – that is NOT a prerogative granted by virtue of the tax dollars going into welfare.  Do you get the same prerogative with regard to how the Pentagon spends tax dollars?  Do you have the same prerogative with regard to all other public spending?

  • Rick Blaine

    Don’t tell me. You’re a Christian.

  • dginga

    Perhaps the answer could involve taking the kids away from a lazy, irresponsible parent who can’t provide for them.  Talk about an unfit parent!  The children should not be left to starve, but I think you’d be surprised at how quickly the baby mammas would find themselves jobs if THEY were the ones who were hungry.

  • Nathan Jessup


  • ghostshirt

    Lots of passion in these comments, and I don’t blame anybody for that. As part of my faith, I contribute to local food pantry (in person). I work in a small southern town with about 15% living below poverty level. So I don’t claim to know much about poverty in Miami or Detroit, OK? I’m just saying what I know.

    I see a lot of people raising grandkids because who knows who Daddy is, and Mom’s in jail for meth or just ran off somewhere. Most are in their 40′s or 50′s. Some are married couples, some shack-up couples of varying stability, and some are single grandmothers. None have much in the way of 2012 marketable job skills that I can tell.

    The other group is made up of girls in their 20′s or 30′s who mistake sex for love. These women don’t look like cunning gamers of the Welfare system to me. They look like people I wouldn’t trust to rake leaves without supervision, so I don’t see where the ‘cunning’ part comes in.

    When I drive through poorest parts of that town, I never see any clotheslines. That just surprises me still, because I know the sun & wind will dry your clothes for free. Most of the young poor, male & female, don’t know how to do a damn thing towards basic existence.

    This is what we have to figure a Conservative fix for. Not what the Romulan said. These people are Americans too, and probably fewer of them are on drugs than you’d think. I don’t want to repair their damned “safety net.”

    Suggestions I’ve read about we need to get tougher on Welfare requirements? Hominid is right (I HATE typing that) in the good idea trails off for those that still cross lines drawn in the sand.

    These heartfelt suggestions presume there’s a way to constructively modify the scourge wrought by LBJ back in the 1960′s. That’s illogical. Many of the people who died in New Orleans during Katrina did so waiting for Uncle Sam to come save them. LBJ’s ghost helped killed those people. There is no constructive modification possible for a system so unspeakably evil it turns Americans into brain dead zombies.

    Instead we throw the whole mess overboard and start teaching people how to take care of themselves and each other.  

  • Formally_Worried_Independent

     I buy used books and am currently reading Slouching to Gomorrah by Robert Bork published in 1996. Wonderful read about how the 60′s radicals turned our society upside down and screwed everything up. Bork foresaw the consequences of  turning society against itself and we are living the outcome today.

  • 8675310

    The things said about Johnson’s goals with the New Society were not his real goals.  Those things were said to make it palatable.  The goal was and still is, to control and increase the size of voting blocs.The democrats behaved as openly racist as long as they could suppress the black vote. When the Voting Rights and the Civil Rights Acts passed were passed by republican votes, the democrats could not suppress the vote any longer and so they moved to capture and control it.  The true aims of Lyndon Johnson’s programs have been wildly successful.  Forty-seven or forty eight percent of “tax payers” pay no net income tax.  How will you get them to ever vote for anyone but the party that gave it to them?

  • Formally_Worried_Independent

     I applaud your soaring rhetoric, just one question, do I have the inalienable right to not pay taxes to support people scamming the system, or a government giving my money away in innumerable ways that I disagree with? The answer is, of course I don’t, not without severe punishment from a coercive government bent on total control of the populace. Where is the equality of  a segment of society getting the benefits of an orderly society and not contributing to the society? Rights come from God but sinners will abuse those rights every chance they have thus taking advantage of the goodwill of decent people, making society a cesspool of divisiveness. Everybody should be treated absolutely equal in our society in the form of contributing to the well being of our government, every adult must pay taxes. One exception only, physical or mental infirmity proven by a panel of medical experts and reconfirmed on a yearly basis. The testing must be rigorous or fraud will occur.

  • Thomas

    If Romney were a conservative he would have been familiar with these kinds of stats,

     he would have been able to compare American calls poor to international and historical standards and even get a 2-fer by calling it diverse international standards,

    would have been able to seize the high ground, make the case, and sell a plan to reduce who gets government money how much they get

    and have a method of delivery that also saves money both through efficiency,

     by weeding out those who are not truly starving or freezing to death,

    and by identifying those who could be given a one time hand-up rather than lifetime of hand-outs. 

    Heck if he was even a good Moreman he would know the phrase “give a man a fish; feed him for a day; teach a man to fish; feed him for life.

  • Formally_Worried_Independent

     Americans do not get to Judge other Americans.

     Do you live in the real world or some crackpot insane asylum singing kumbaya .  Even our founding fathers judged each other and had intense rivalries. Some of our founders hated each other with passion beyond any modern day political bickering. We had duels, we had fist fights, we had caning, you did hear about this thing called a civil war, it kinda made some news.

  • globalcrap

    Find the dead beat fathers , and make them pay some kind of support..

  • globalcrap

    These people that have 4,and 5 kids without fathers,  are they Christians ??

  • globalcrap

    What do you call the welfare baby makers with 4,or more kids with four different fathers ?????

  • globalcrap


  • DeepSouth

    Well-done, sir. Too bad nobody in power is listening.