Refocusing the Poverty Debate

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 Washington, D.C.-based Center for Family & Human Rights (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.