Report Questions Definition of Poverty
Special Report - July 22, 2011
According to a new report, amenities such as air conditioning, cable or satellite television, and an X-Box are found in the homes of the majority of American families that the United States government defines as “poor.” Released July 18, The Heritage Foundation Backgrounder entitled, “Air Conditioning, Cable TV and an X-Box: What is Poverty in the United States,” was written by Robert Rector, Senior Research Fellow in the Devos Center for Religion and Civil Society, and Rachel Sheffield, a Research Assistant at The Heritage Foundation. Rector and Sheffield take issue with the federal government’s definition of poverty, noting that the majority of Americans the government considers to be living in poverty “are not poor in the ordinary sense of the term.”
According to 2005 government survey data cited in the report, the average poor family in America:
- Enjoys a wide range of amenities, including air conditioning, cable television, two color televisions, and a DVD player and VCR;
- Has a game system, such as X-Box, especially when children (and boys) are in the home;
- Has a kitchen equipped with a refrigerator, stoves/oven, and microwave;
- Has a home that is in good condition and “not overcrowded;”
- Has at least one car;
- Is able to obtain medical care;
- Reports that the family is not hungry;
- Reports “sufficient funds during the past year to meet all essential needs.”
While the authors acknowledge that “the average poor family [as described in the report] does not represent every poor family,” and that a “wide range” of living conditions exist among the poor, they argue that good public policy for addressing poverty needs to be based on the actual living conditions of America’s poor. “Regrettably, most discussions of poverty in the U.S. rely on sensationalism, exaggeration, and misinformation,” the authors write. “Exaggeration and misinformation obscure the nature, extent, and causes of real material deprivation, thereby hampering the development of well-targeted, effective programs to reduce the problem.”
The report also argues that current U.S. Census Bureau poverty data, which estimates that over 30 million Americans live in poverty each year, is “misleading and inaccurate.” For example, the authors point out that the Census report “provides no information on the actual living conditions of persons identified as poor,” and that the Census “massively undercounts the economic resources provided to poor people, including income from welfare programs (such as Public housing, Medicaid, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families).
“To the average American, the word ‘poverty’ implies significant material deprivation, an inability to provide a family with adequate nutritious food, reasonable shelter, and clothing,” the report concludes. “The actual living conditions of America’s poor are far different from these images. Poor families clearly struggle to make ends meet, but in most cases, they are struggling to pay for air conditioning and cable TV while putting food on the table.” The authors call for a new anti-poverty policy that is “based on an accurate assessment of actual living conditions and the causes of deprivation.”
Previous research by Robert Rector for The Heritage Foundation has shown that the principal cause of child poverty in the U.S. is the decline of marriage, and, more specifically, the absence of fathers from the home. In a 2010 report, Rector showed that marriage reduces child poverty among all racial and ethnic groups. He discussed these findings in a November 2010 interview with North Carolina Family Policy Council president, Bill Brooks, on the Council’s weekly radio program, “Family Policy Matters.” That interview, “Father Absence and Child Poverty,” aired in two parts, and can be found here.
America's Greatest Child Poverty Weapon - October 4, 2010
Married Fathers Deter Poverty - June 21, 2010
Tracking the Importance of Family and Faith - FNC - Spring 2010
The Effect of the Family on Social Ills - FNC - May/June 2009
Costs of Father Absence - October 21, 2008
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