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Refocusing the Poverty Debate Print E-mail
By Austin Ruse   
Friday, 23 September 2011

Few debates in American public policy are driven more by emotion and less by fact than the one over poverty. Witness the release of new poverty numbers by the Census Bureau, which has caused an uproar in the press and, indeed, are worrying in what they say about the overall state of the U.S. economy.  But the numbers could also benefit from careful examination.

The basic facts are clear. One in six Americans lives in poverty, 46.2 million people. And the poverty rate, 15.1 percent, is the highest of any major industrialized society. The human-interest stories tend to show hungry people living either homeless, in trailers, or in public-assistance housing. Nobody has food in the cupboards, and the children sleep on the floor.

No one should make light of real suffering. People have lost jobs and are hurting in greatly reduced circumstances. But the debate about these issues can only be helped by an open-eyed look at the real facts. Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation has once more provided this service.

In a new paper, Rector (with Rachel Sheffield) shows how the Census Bureau “provides no information on the actual living conditions of the persons identified as poor. . . .[The report] simply states that a specified number of persons are poor without giving any information on what poverty means in the real world.”

He charges that the report “massively undercounts the economic resources provided to poor people. The Census Bureau asserts that a household is poor if its ‘money income’ falls below a specified threshold.” The report, “excludes virtually all welfare assistance including seventy means-tested programs that provide cash, food, housing, medical care, and social services to the poor and low-income persons.”

Drilling down into data collected by the Census and the Department of Agriculture is an eye-opening experience. Census data show the poor are quite wealthy in modern conveniences. Eighty percent of poor households have air-conditioning. In 1970, only 36 percent of all households did. Ninety-two percent of the poor have a microwave. Two-thirds have cable or satellite TV and a DVD player. One-third of the poor own a wide-screen plasma or LCD-TV. The list could go on.

Okay, modern conveniences are one thing. Prices have dropped on all these items. But the numbers demonstrate a level of comfort unknown to average Americans even fifty years ago.

What about hunger? The media and poverty advocates portray the American poor, particularly the children, as hungry every night. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “96 percent of poor parents stated that their children were never hungry at any time during the year because they could not afford food. Eighty-three percent of poor families reported having enough food to eat. Eighty-two percent of poor adults reported never being hungry at any time in the prior year due to lack of money for food.” And this during the severest of recessions and huge unemployment.


Well, they are all homeless aren’t they? Not by a long shot: “Over the course of a year, 4 percent of poor persons become temporarily homeless.” According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, “on any given night in 2009, some of 643,000 persons in the U.S. were homeless (without permanent domicile). Moreover, two-thirds of the 643,000 homeless were residing in emergency shelters or transitional housing. Only 240,000 were without shelter. . . . Homelessness is usually a transitional condition. Individuals typically lose housing, reside in an emergency shelter for a few weeks or months and then reenter permanent housing.”

But what kind of housing? You hear a lot about living in run-down trailers. According to government data, “most poor Americans live in conventional houses or apartments that are in good repair. Forty-nine percent of poor households live in single-family homes . . . [a]nother 41 percent live in apartments, and 9.5 percent live in mobile homes.”

Overcrowding is a very interesting aspect to look at. We usually think the poor are crowded four and five to a room. In fact, “71 percent of all U.S. households have two or more rooms per tenant, among the poor this figure is 65 percent.”

And look at living space: “With 2,171 square feet of living space, the average U.S. dwelling is more than twice the size of the average dwelling in Europe.” In Sweden it’s 999 square feet. In France it’s 980 square feet, Germany 968, and the UK it is 935. The average dwelling space of the American poor is 1,400 square feet, meaning the American poor have 50 percent more space per person than the average European of all income brackets.

Our poverty debate could use quite a bit of sunshine and honesty. Those who advocate cutting programs they regard as ineffective or counterproductive are painted as ogres who want to take scraps of bread from the mouths of poor waifs living on the street. Government statistics abundantly show this is not the condition of most poor people in America.

For Catholics this is an especially pressing concern because politically liberal Catholics charge that pro-life Republicans are not really pro-life because they do not “care about the poor.” We’re likely to hear a lot of that in the 2012 presidential campaign.

Republicans may not “care” for the caricature of the poor. But liberals happily ignore the fact that, without Republican support, we would spend nowhere near the $871 billion we allot each year at the Federal and State levels for the needy.

The pope and the bishops in communion with him have made it clear that no issue in America is more important than stopping the killing of children in the womb. The Church is right to prioritize life over poverty, especially when the truth about poverty is less dire than some advocates say.

As Catholics we have an obligation to help the poor, but we are not obliged to indulge in liberal fantasies or to get pushed around by poverty activists, even Catholic ones.

Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washinton, D.C.-based Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy. The opinions expressed here are Mr. Ruse’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of C-FAM.

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Comments (14)Add Comment
written by jsmitty, September 23, 2011
OK Austin, you make some good points.....being poor in the US is better in 2011 than it would have been being poor in the US in 1951. Just as being poor in the US in 2011 is much better than being poor in most any other country. Agreed.

But two things...1) you fail to point out that the increased well being of the poor is at least in part because of govt. anti-poverty programs like medicaid, schip, food stamps, AFDC, section 8, WIC and so on and so forth which conservatives usually opposed either outright or would like to make less generous--while liberals, including liberal Catholics, supported them. Social Security and Medicare likewise have all but eliminated poverty in old age. And most conservatives would prefer that these program either didn't exist or were much smaller.

2) conservatives have also generally opposed efforts to expand health insurance coverage to the poor--which is one big difference in quality of life between lower income working Americans and most everyone else. If Obamacare does not get repealed then this is another reason to think that the well-being of the poor has been improved by liberals.

So will you at least admit that you could write this piece arguing that the greater priority should be given to abortion in part because of the success of liberals in addressing poverty in America?
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written by Austin Ruse, September 23, 2011
jsmitty, actually what I point out is that it is the Census Bureau that does not take into account all the benefits to poor people when they do their poverty calculations. And regarding point 2, none of those programs could have passed or been upheld without Republican support at one time or another. Helping poor people is a bi-partisan idea.
written by Austin Ruse, September 23, 2011
Lisa, I don't think you read the column...
written by Jacob R, September 23, 2011
I concur... Passing the duchie ain't so bad. Getting murdered takes away all chances.

A lot of poor people are happier than rich people and experience joy often despite their situation. Smashing a baby in the womb is like a concentration camp, all evil and no good.
written by Achilles, September 23, 2011
Mr. Ruse, excellent article and real food for thought. Of course there is much more beyond what you had space to write. Lisa has gone the wrong way. These are not questions of material as your article points out. These are matters of virtue, or lack of it.
J Smitty, read Rerum Novarum as it was intended to be read.
written by Teresa, September 23, 2011
Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta identified the real poverty in America. Speaking of the difference between the poverty of those she served in India and those who suffer in Western nations, she said, "But in the West you have another kind of poverty, spiritual poverty. This is far worse. People do not believe in God, do not pray. People do not care for each other. You have the poverty of people who are dissatisfied with what they have, who do not know how to suffer, who give in to despair. This poverty of heart is often more difficult to relieve and to defeat. In the West you have many more broken homes, neglected children, and divorce on a huge scale." This spiritual poverty includes the willingness to kill the innocent. "It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish."

We certainly should help those who are unable to meet the basic human needs of shelter, food, clothing, and medical care. Your article suggests we are doing that reasonably well as a nation, and I pray we continue to do so. I also pray that we will bring the same sort of energy and resources to relieving the sort of poverty that Mother Teresa talked about - the spiritual poverty of abortion and coldness of heart.
written by Grump, September 23, 2011
"Poverty" in this country would be living the life of Reilly in most of the Third World. Ever see these so-called "poor people" profiled on the news? None of em look like they ever missed a meal. Most look like candidates for Weight Watchers or the Biggest Loser.

Go to your local food pantry and see who's getting free food and handouts. They pull up in nice cars (saw one woman in a Mercedes), fat and happy, every other week, loading up at the expense of the producers. Then they go back home, turn on their 50-inch Plasma TV's and eat Doritos and drink beer all day while collecting unemployment.

Half the country is supporting the other half (who don't pay taxes). Solution: Ship the parasites overseas where they can live like royalty and, voila, unemployment rate goes down to zero.
written by terri egan, September 23, 2011
Thanks Austin, I have often questioned American poor/homelessness.

First, having traveled a bit to third world countries, its hard not to notice the skinny and sickly poor and homeless. Its hard not to notice when I come home and walk around DC to see not so skinny and not so sickly poor and homeless.

Secondly, I have a hard time figuring out why all these types of social programs have to be at a federal level. I pay my taxes into something called "federal taxes". From that, am I to feel better that American needy are taken care of through these social programs and my conscience is clear? OR shouldn't it be at a local level where I can look a human being in the face and help financially, emotionally, spiritually and lovingly from one human to another.
written by Manfred, September 23, 2011
Another aspect of the poverty issue, Mr. Ruse, is the fact that African-Americans are tending more and more to not marry at all. They remain fecund and they produce children, but very often these children are being raised by single mothers and grandmothers. The result is they remain a "permanent underclass" as they do not have the role models and the finances and the social networking to assist them in acquiring substantial educations. St. Paul was adamant that he would practice his trade (tent making and repair) when he visited each Catholic community so as not to be a burden to his hosts. (Would that this fact be better known.)
written by Austin Ruse, September 23, 2011
Manfred: It is not just African Americans. The rate of out of wedlock births is skyrocketing. That is the other part of Rector's report, the dirty little secret that one of the primary causes of poverty in American is no father in the home.
written by Tony, September 23, 2011
Responses to Lisa and Smitty:

1. If people are not actually suffering, I don't see that they have a legitimate claim for public assistance. That is, we should marshal our resources for people who are genuinely hurting. This would include especially, I think, those married couples who have large families.

2. It is no shame to inherit clothing or appliances or whatnot from family members helping out. That is what families are for. It is not the government's role, generally speaking, to supply the function of a family.

3. It is one thing to say, "If I give a hundred dollars to John, then John will benefit." It may or may not be true, by the way, but it is at least a personal and local matter. It is quite another to say, "I will enact a law whereby everyone in Mary's situation will receive a hundred dollars." Then, we have to take into account not just the immediate benefit to Mary, but the general and long-term effect of such a law. That is what conservatives have long objected to -- it is their contention that welfare has some inherent perverse incentives, or perverse disincentives. For example: if John is shacking up with Mary and they produce a child, it will be "better" for them, as far as the government is concerned, if he pretends to be living elsewhere, and if they do not marry, so that she will qualify for more money.

4. The difference between welfare and genuine personal care for the poor is roughly analogous to the difference between incarceration of criminals and an attempt to reform them that takes into account their status as spiritual beings. It is good for both the recipient and the giver of assistance that it be local and personal, not bureaucratic and impersonal.

5. My grandfather and his family were on public assistance. That's because, after fifteen years of working in the coal mines, he had a nervous breakdown, and could never hold down another job. That, I suppose, is what welfare was for. Still, the assistance was pretty minimal, and that meant that the six children had to work hard from an early age to help support the family. A tighter bunch you would not easily find.

6. I suspect that men and women do not view this issue in the same way. Men tend to believe that there is something shameful in having to take things from their neighbors, which is essentially what public assistance does. They aren't right about that, if it's their pride that's speaking, but they still resist the notion that just because they are out of work, let's say, they have an entitlement to someone else's money.
written by veritas, September 23, 2011
Great Article !!! Someone should forward it to all 350 staffers in the USCCB in DC so that as they prepare the draft position papers that the Bishops are asked to review and sign off on at each Meeting they will stop the decades long downplaying of the Pro-Life Imperative that small minds like Mother Teresa and John Paul II have identified for the Faithful for decades now as the Central Evil in America and with a new found unity finally purge the curse of Abortion from this hurting land.
written by Rob, September 27, 2011
“96 percent of poor parents stated that their children were never hungry at any time during the year because they could not afford food. Eighty-three percent of poor families reported having enough food to eat. Eighty-two percent of poor adults reported never being hungry at any time in the prior year due to lack of money for food.”

Having enough food to eat forms the foundation of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Food insecurity is the single biggest source of shame for poor families, and as such self-reporting on the issue can't be trusted. Children in public schools in poor communities have claimed that the only meals they eat are in school. Who do you choose to believe, a child who has no connection between money and self-worth, or an adult who can't afford to feed their kids?

Prioritizing social issues is each individual's responsibility. Children go to bed hungry in this country every day. Abortions happen every day in this country. You shouldn't have to rationalize why one is more "important" than the other based on second hand statistics about home electronics.

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