Redefining Poverty

What does it mean to be poor in the United States?  How do people who fall below the “poverty line” actually live?  What kinds of amenities, if any, do they have?

The Heritage Foundation tried to answer these questions in a recent study.  Its report notes that, although the Census Bureau consistently reports that more than 30 million Americans live “in poverty,” the Census Bureau does not provide data on the living conditions of people in that category.  To try to answer that question, the Heritage Foundation turned to another government study, called the Residential Energy Consumption Survey, conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy.  The data from that survey is eye-opening.  The Heritage Foundation study found that the vast majority of families whose cash incomes are below the official poverty thresholds enjoy significant amenities.  For example, more than 78 percent of those households have air conditioning, more than 65 percent have more than one television set, and more than 63 percent have cable television.  Indeed, nearly one third of those households have more than two televisions and almost 30 percent have a video game system.

The report highlights the disconnect between what many Americans view as true poverty and how our government defines poverty.  I doubt if many people would consider a family with air conditioning, multiple television sets, cable TV, and a video game system to be impoverished.  In fact, most of us over a certain age grew up in households without such amenities, and we certainly didn’t consider our families to be poor or needing help.

I understand that the standards defining poverty will change over time.  However, the Heritage Foundation report suggests that the government should reexamine income cutoffs that treat people with air conditioning, multiple TVs, and video game consoles as impoverished.  Government programs and assistance should be reserved for the truly needy — not for people who are simply lacking the latest version of a Nintendo game system.