So who gets to decide what “poor” means? For most of us, the vague definition is hazy around the edges. Homeless or living in public shelters or substandard housing? Someone whose food supply is uncertain and of inferior quality? Families without adequate warm clothing?
Those of us who think this way have an outdated image of poverty, one that harks back to the 1930s Great Depression.
The nouveau poor (post-Lyndon Johnson’s assault on the middle class) are far removed from John-Boy Walton’s family existence in rural Virginia in 1935 or so. Trust Hollywood television to purvey yet another shibboleth that allows its audience to share a common definition of reality that is far removed from the actuality of life among the poor in modern America. We’re trained to make the jump from John-Boy to old people living on cat food and homeless folks left to shift for themselves, at the mercy of street life. Consider those images as part of our indoctrination.
If there is one way in which Americans are isolated, it is by economic demography. People tend to associate with others of more-or-less equal income. The very rich hang out in the same places; likewise, the poor have their own environment. Perhaps the only place in which they might meet up is Disney World.
The Heritage Foundation provides this summary of part of the picture: [my emphasis — D]
For decades, the U.S. Census Bureau has reported that over 30 million Americans were living in “poverty,” but the bureau’s definition of poverty differs widely from that held by most Americans. In fact, other government surveys show that most of the persons whom the government defines as “in poverty” are not poor in any ordinary sense of the term.
The overwhelming majority of the poor have air conditioning, cable TV, and a host of other modern amenities. They are well housed, have an adequate and reasonably steady supply of food, and have met their other basic needs, including medical care. Some poor Americans do experience significant hardships, including temporary food shortages or inadequate housing, but these individuals are a minority within the overall poverty population. Poverty remains an issue of serious social concern, but accurate information about that problem is essential in crafting wise public policy. Exaggeration and misinformation about poverty obscure the nature, extent, and causes of real material deprivation, thereby hampering the development of well-targeted, effective programs to reduce the problem.
Below the fold is a chart showing the material possessions of those who are maintained on our national rolls as “at or below the poverty level”. And the Poverty Mongers will be the first to tell you these are the deprived, those who are cut off from the right to achieve, to pursue happiness.
But wait. That chart dates from 2005. Before Obama arrived with his New View of poverty measures. From 2010:
Under the new measure, a family will be judged “poor” if its income falls below a certain specified income threshold. Nothing new there, but, unlike the current poverty standards, the new income thresholds will have a built-in escalator clause: They will rise automatically in direct proportion to any rise in the living standards of the average American.
The current poverty measure counts absolute purchasing power — how much steak and potatoes you can buy. The new measure will count comparative purchasing power — how much steak and potatoes you can buy relative to other people. As the nation becomes wealthier, the poverty standards will increase in proportion. In other words, Obama will employ a statistical trick to ensure that “the poor will always be with you,” no matter how much better off they get in absolute terms.
This poverty-is-relative outlook is pernicious; at best, it promotes envy and divisiveness. As the author(Robert Rector) pointed out this kind of thinking was considered during LBJ’s rollout of the War on Poverty. Johnson “flatly rejected” the relativity standards. Most unfortunately for the health of our culture, however, LBJ’s compassionate paternalism did wreak havoc, even if it didn’t go so far as the Leftists would’ve liked. In the intervening years since the creation of those pie-in-the-sky grants for Head Start, Job Corps, etc., all of which were a dismal FAIL, we have learned the truly malignant consequences of a ‘helpful’ government.
The weird new poverty measure will produce very odd results. For example, if the real income of every single American were to magically triple over night, the new poverty measure would show there had been no drop in “poverty,” because the poverty income threshold would also triple. Under the Obama system, poverty can be reduced only if the incomes of the “poor” are rising faster than the incomes of everyone else.
Another paradox of the new poverty measure is that countries such as Bangladesh and Albania will have lower poverty rates than the United States, even though the actual living conditions in those countries are extremely bad. Haiti would probably have a very low poverty rate when measured by the Obama system because the earthquake reduced much of the population to a uniform penniless squalor.
In other words, common sense tells you there will always be a bottom level. But in Obama-land that bottom is ipso facto, “poor”. Talk about debasement of the language…
…Since the beginning of the 20th century, the incomes of nearly all Americans have increased sevenfold, after adjusting for inflation. However, from Obama’s perspective, this increase in real incomes had no impact on poverty, because the wages of those at the bottom of the income distribution did not rise faster than the incomes of those in the middle.
What has the Obama measure to do with actual poverty? Not much.
There are currently forty million people classified as poor. Yet most of them have quite a share of material goods (see chart). Our grandfathers would’ve derided this surreal accounting and defining as the bogus operation it is. Bogus and malign.
In honest English, the new system will measure income inequality, not poverty. Why not just call it an “inequality” index? Answer: because the American voter is unwilling to support massive welfare increases, soaring deficits, and tax increases to equalize incomes. However, if the goal of income leveling is camouflaged as a desperate struggle against poverty, hunger, and dire deprivation, then the political prospects improve. The new measure is a public-relations Trojan horse, smuggling in a “spread the wealth” agenda under the ruse of fighting real material privation — a condition that is rare in our society.
Indeed it is rare. So rare that even those who work with the so-called poor have never encountered “real material deprivation”. For many years I worked with families, adults, and children the average person would view as part of the underclass. But they would’ve been so defined by their behaviors rather than their possessions.
- The underclass possess many goods, but books aren’t likely to be high on the list.
- Members of the underclass generally live in the present; they seldom plan ahead.
- “Families” often consist of one mother with several children. Each of her kids may have been the result of short-lived unions with different men who have long since abandoned their offspring.
- Drama and conflict pervade the household. Children fight among themselves and are poorly supervised. The adult in the home, the mother, experiences frequent discord with members of her family of origin.
- Crises are frequent: utilities are cut off; cell phones are inactive due to lack of payment; rental furniture is repossessed; cars go missing to boyfriends or others.
- Aside from intervention by social workers and stop-gap rescues from well-meaning charities, there is little family involvement in the community. No one joins the Scouts or sports teams, no one attends church, few have library cards. Usually, Mother doesn’t bother registering to vote or attending Parent-Teacher meetings.
The possessions of the underclass are often astonishingly pricey. Name brand shoes — Nike, Adidas, etc., — are necessities for demanding children who refuse to go to school in cheap $100.00 shoes. It’s not true they learn nothing in these government schools; these kids learn how to dress in order to stir envy in others.
The first time I observed a child’s tantrum over his shoes was in a house where the electricity had been turned off the month before and only reconnected by the helpful community church outreach. I tried to talk reason to the distraught mother but it was hard to be heard over the noise of the X-box game two other children were playing. When I did my next home visit, the boy had his Nikes and Salvation Army was signing up the family for Christmas. Call it my Poverty Epiphany.
As the economic uncertainties loom for the middle class it well may be that the government-supported poor will continue on as before. The Obama Hope ’n’ Change meme is simply a novel (and soon to be pervasive) philosophy of poverty:
True, the new Obama measure will not, at present, alter benefits or expand eligibility for welfare programs. But the new measure does establish a new philosophy of poverty. For the first time, the government is planning to define poverty as a problem that can never be solved by the American dream: a general rise of incomes of all Americans across society over time. By definition, poverty can now be solved only by the dream of the Left: massive taxes on the upper and middle classes and redistribution to the less affluent. In effect, the Obama poverty measure sets a new national goal of class warfare and income redistribution.
We’ll have to wait and see how long our President’s vision of eternal class warfare lasts as the tax revenues from the upper and middle class begins to shrink.