Last month, to much media pooplah, the Census Bureau released its annual report on poverty in the U.S. Predictably, liberals all but wailed about bread lines and soup kitchens. Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut called the poverty figures “a national scandal.” But the report contained relatively good news, as recessions go.
As expected, the Census numbers showed poverty had increased in 2002 due to the economic downturn; however, the poverty rise was quite modest when compared to prior recessions. For example, the report showed that during the first two years of the current downturn the number of poor children increased by 550,000 or one half of 1% of all children. By contrast, in each of the previous three recessions (back to the early 1970s) child poverty increased, on average, by two and a half percentage points over the same period-or five times as much. In its impact on poverty, the economic slowdown from which we are now emerging was one of the mildest on record.
But what is more remarkable is the story behind the Census figures: The actual living conditions of the individuals the government deems to be poor. For most Americans the word “poverty” suggests destitution: an inability to provide a family with nutritious food, clothing and reasonable shelter. But only a small number of the 35 million persons classified as “poor” by the Census Bureau fit that description.
While real material hardship certainly does occur, it is limited in scope and severity. The bulk of the “poor” live in material conditions that would have been judged as comfortable or well-off just a few generations ago. Today, the expenditures per person of the lowest income one-fifth (or quintile) of households equal those of the median American household in the early 1970s, after adjusting for inflation.
Microwaves and Stereos
The following are facts about persons defined as “poor” by the Census Bureau, taken from various government reports:
As a group the poor are far from being chronically undernourished. The average consumption of protein, vitamins and minerals is virtually the same for poor and middle-class children, and in most cases is well above recommended norms. Poor children actually consume more meat than do higher-income children and have average protein intakes 100% above recommended levels. Most poor children today are in fact super-nourished, on average growing up to be one inch taller and ten pounds heavier than the GIs who stormed the beaches of Normandy in World War II.
While the poor are generally well nourished, some poor families do experience hunger, meaning a temporary discomfort due to food shortages. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 13% of poor families and 2.6% of poor children experience hunger at some point during the year. In most cases their hunger is short-term. Overall, 84% of the poor report their families have “enough” food to eat, while only 3% say they “often” do not have enough to eat.
Overall, the typical American, defined as poor by the government, has a car, air conditioning, a refrigerator, stove, clothes washer and dryer and a microwave. He has two color televisions, cable or satellite TV reception, a VCR or DVD player and a stereo. He is able to obtain medical care. His home is in good repair and is not over-crowded.
By his own report, his family is not hungry and in the last year he had sufficient funds to meet his familys essential needs. While this individuals life is not opulent, it is equally far from the popular images of dire poverty conveyed by the press, liberal activists and politicians.
Still, “poverty”, even as defined by the broad standards of the Census Bureau, can be reduced further, particularly among children. There are two main reasons American children are poor: Their parents dont work much, and fathers are absent from the home. In good economic times or bad, the typical poor family with children is supported by only 800 hours of work during a year-that amounts to 16 hours of work per week. If work in each family were raised to 2,000 hours per year-the equivalent of one adult working 40 hours per week through the year-nearly 75% of poor children would be lifted out of official poverty.
Not having a dad around is another reliable pathway down into poverty. Nearly two-thirds of poor children reside in single-parent homes. Each year an additional 1.3 million children are born out-of-wedlock. If poor mothers married the fathers of their children, almost three quarters would immediately be lifted out of poverty.
While work and marriage are steady ladders out of poverty, the welfare system perversely remains hostile to both. Major programs such as Food Stamps, public housing, and Medicaid continue to reward idleness and penalize marriage. If welfare could be turned around to encourage work and marriage, remaining poverty would drop quickly.
Still, in a sense, the poor will always be with us. The liberal grievance industry needs an abundant supply of apparent victims to keep its motors running. Without a permanent victim class, liberals cannot survive. Thus, in liberal imagination and rhetoric, the microwave must always be bare.