In 2006 the Census Bureau released its annual report on poverty in the United States, declaring that there were 37 million poor persons living in the country in 2005. This figure represented 12.6 percent of the U.S. population -- a proportion that had varied from 11.3 percent to 15.1 percent of the population over the preceding 20 years.
For most Americans, the word "poverty" suggests destitution: an inability to provide a family with nutritious food, clothing, and reasonable shelter. But only a small number of the 37 million persons classified as "poor" by the Census Bureau fit that description. While real material hardship certainly does occur, it is limited in scope and severity. Most of America's "poor" live in material conditions that would have been judged as "comfortable" or "well-off" just a few generations ago. Today, the per-person expenditures of households whose incomes are in the bottom 20 percent nationwide, equal those of the median American household in the early 1970s, after adjusting for inflation.
The following are facts about persons defined as "poor" by the Census Bureau, taken from various government reports:
Forty-three percent of all poor households own their own homes. The average home owned by persons classified as poor by the Census Bureau is a three-bedroom house with one-and-a-half baths, a garage, and a porch or patio.
Eighty percent of poor households have air conditioning. By contrast, in 1970, only 36 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.
Only 6 percent of poor households are overcrowded. More than two-thirds have more than two rooms per person.
Nearly three-quarters of poor households own a car; 31 percent own two or more cars.
Ninety-seven percent of poor households have a color television; over half own two or more color televisions.
Seventy-eight percent of poor households have a VCR or DVD player; 62 percent have cable or satellite TV reception.
Eighty-nine percent of poor households own microwave ovens, more than half have a stereo, and more than a third have an automatic dishwasher.
As a group, America's poor are far from being chronically undernourished. The average consumption of protein, vitamins, and minerals is virtually the same for poor and middle-class children and, in most cases, is well above recommended norms. Poor children actually consume more meat than do higher-income children and have average protein intakes that are 100 percent above recommended levels. Most poor children today are, in fact, super-nourished and grow up to be, on average, one inch taller and 10 pounds heavier than their counterparts from the World War II era.
While the poor are generally well nourished, some poor families do experience temporary food shortages. But even this condition is relatively rare; 89 percent of the poor report that their families have "enough" food to eat, while only 2 percent say they "often" do not have enough to eat.
Of course, the living conditions of the average poor American should not be taken as representing all the poor. There is actually a wide range in living conditions among the poor. For example, a third of poor households have both cellular and landline telephones; a third also have telephone answering machines. At the other extreme, however, approximately one-tenth have no phone at all. Similarly, while the majority of poor households do not experience significant material problems, roughly 30 percent do experience at least one problem such as overcrowding, temporary hunger, or difficulty getting medical care.
Poverty among children in the U.S. merits special attention. There are two main reasons why American children are poor: Their parents do not work very much, and their fathers are absent from the home:
In good economic times or bad, the typical poor family with children is supported by only 800 hours of work during a year: That amounts to 16 hours of work per week.
Father absence is another major cause of child poverty. Nearly two-thirds of poor children reside in single-parent homes; each year, an additional 1.5 million children are born out of wedlock.
While work and marriage are steady ladders out of poverty, the welfare system remains hostile to both. Major programs such as food stamps, public housing, and Medicaid continue to reward idleness and penalize marriage. If welfare could be turned around to require work and encourage marriage, poverty among children would drop substantially.
But while renewed welfare reform could help to reduce poverty, under current conditions such efforts would be partially offset by the poverty-boosting impact of America's immigration system. Each year, the U.S. imports, through both legal and illegal immigration, hundreds of thousands of additional poor persons from abroad. As a result, one-quarter of all poor persons in the U.S. are now first-generation immigrants or the minor children of those immigrants. Roughly one in ten of the persons counted among the poor by the Census Bureau is either an illegal immigrant or the minor child of an illegal. As long as the present steady flow of poverty-prone persons from foreign countries continues, efforts to reduce the total number of poor in the U.S. will be far more difficult. A sound anti-poverty strategy must seek to increase work and marriage, reduce illegal immigration, and increase the skill level of future legal immigrants.