Poverty in America

Poverty in America


The text below is excerpted from “Understanding Poverty in the United States: Surprising Facts About America’s Poor” (by Robert Rector, Heritage Foundation, 9-13-2011):

Today, the Census Bureau released its annual poverty report, which declared that a record 46.2 million persons, or roughly one in seven Americans, were poor in 2010. The numbers were up sharply from the previous year’s total of 43.6 million. Although the current recession has increased the numbers of the poor, high levels of poverty predate the recession. In most years for the past two decades, the Census Bureau has declared that at least 35 million Americans lived in poverty.

However, understanding poverty in America requires looking behind these numbers at the actual living conditions of the individuals the government deems to be poor. For most Americans, the word “poverty” suggests near destitution: an inability to provide nutritious food, clothing, and reasonable shelter for one’s family. However, only a small number of the 46 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.

The following are facts about persons defined as “poor” by the Census Bureau as taken from various government reports:

  • 80 percent of poor households have air conditioning. In 1970, only 36 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.
  • 92 percent of poor households have a microwave.
  • Nearly three-fourths have a car or truck, and 31 percent have two or more cars or trucks.
  • Nearly two-thirds have cable or satellite TV.
  • Two-thirds have at least one DVD player, and 70 percent have a VCR.
  • Half have a personal computer, and one in seven have two or more computers.
  • More than half of poor families with children have a video game system, such as an Xbox or PlayStation.
  • 43 percent have Internet access.
  • One-third have a wide-screen plasma or LCD TV.
  • One-fourth have a digital video recorder system, such as a TiVo.

For decades, the living conditions of the poor have steadily improved. Consumer items that were luxuries or significant purchases for the middle class a few decades ago have become commonplace in poor households, partially because of the normal downward price trend that follows introduction of a new product.

Liberals use the declining relative prices of many amenities to argue that it is no big deal that poor households have air conditioning, computers, cable TV, and wide-screen TV. They contend, polemically, that even though most poor families may have a house full of modern conveniences, the average poor family still suffers from substantial deprivation in basic needs, such as food and housing. In reality, this is just not true.

Although the mainstream media broadcast alarming stories about widespread and severe hunger in the nation, in reality, most of the poor do not experience hunger or food shortages. The U.S. Department of Agriculture collects data on these topics in its household food security survey. For 2009, the survey showed:

  • 96 percent of poor parents stated that their children were never hungry at any time during the year because they could not afford food.
  • 83 percent of poor families reported having enough food to eat.
  • 82 percent of poor adults reported never being hungry at any time in the prior year due to lack of money for food.

Other government surveys show that the average consumption of protein, vitamins, and minerals is virtually the same for poor and middle-class children and is well above recommended norms in most cases.

Television newscasts about poverty in America generally portray the poor as homeless people or as a destitute family living in an overcrowded, dilapidated trailer. In fact, however:

  • Over the course of a year, 4 percent of poor persons become temporarily homeless.
  • Only 9.5 percent of the poor live in mobile homes or trailers, 49.5 percent live in separate single-family houses or townhouses, and 40 percent live in apartments.
  • 42 percent of poor households actually own their own homes.
  • Only 6 percent of poor households are overcrowded. More than two-thirds have more than two rooms per person.
  • The average poor American has more living space than the typical non-poor person in Sweden, France, or the United Kingdom.
  • The vast majority of the homes or apartments of the poor are in good repair.

By their own reports, the average poor person had sufficient funds to meet all essential needs and to obtain medical care for family members throughout the year whenever needed.

Of course, poor Americans do not live in the lap of luxury. The poor clearly struggle to make ends meet, but they are generally struggling to pay for cable TV, air conditioning, and a car, as well as for food on the table. The average poor person is far from affluent, but his lifestyle is far from the images of stark deprivation purveyed equally by advocacy groups and the media.

The fact that the average poor household has many modern conveniences and experiences no substantial hardships does not mean that no families face hardships. As noted, the overwhelming majority of the poor are well housed and not overcrowded, but one in 25 will become temporarily homeless during the year. While most of the poor have a sufficient and fairly steady supply of food, one in five poor adults will experience temporary food shortages and hunger at some point in a year.

The poor man who has lost his home or suffers intermittent hunger will find no consolation in the fact that his condition occurs infrequently in American society. His hardships are real and must be an important concern for policymakers. Nonetheless, anti-poverty policy needs to be based on accurate information. Gross exaggeration of the extent and severity of hardships in America will not benefit society, the taxpayers, or the poor.

Finally, welfare policy needs to address the causes of poverty, not merely the symptoms. Among families with children, the collapse of marriage and erosion of the work ethic are the principal long-term causes of poverty.

* To read the full report by Robert Rector, click here.

Additional Resources:

Understanding Poverty in the United States: Surprising Facts About America’s Poor
By Robert Rector (Heritage Foundation)
September 13, 2011

Air Conditioning, Cable TV, and an Xbox: What is Poverty in the United States Today?
By Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield (Heritage Foundation)
July 19, 2011

Understanding Poverty in America: What the Census Bureau Doesn’t Count
By Robert Rector (Heritage Foundation)
September 11, 2009

How Poor Are America’s Poor? Examining the “Plague” of Poverty in America
By Robert Rector (Heritage Foundation)
August 27, 2007

What Causes Poverty in America?
By Jay Richards (Heritage Foundation)
June 2010

What about the Poor?
By Barry Loberfeld
August 13, 2008

Importing Poverty: Immigration and Poverty in the United States
By Robert Rector (Heritage Foundation)
October 25, 2006

Understanding Poverty and Inequality in the United States
By Robert Rector (Heritage Foundation)
September 15, 2004

Income Relativism
By Tim Kane
January 30, 2006

Understanding Differences in Black and White Child Poverty Rates
By Patrick Fagan and Kirk Johnson (Heritage Foundation)
May 23, 2001

Increasing Marriage Would Dramatically Reduce Child Poverty
By Patrick Fagan, Kirk Johnson, Lauren Noyes & Robert Rector
May 20, 2003

The Role of Parental Work in Child Poverty
By Robert Rector and Rea Hederman, Jr. (Heritage Foundation)
January 27, 2003

Family Breakdown and America’s Welfare System
By Willis Krumholz
October 7, 2019

Sharp Reduction in Black Child Poverty Due to Welfare Reform
By Melissa Pardue (Heritage Foundation)
June 12, 2003

Are the Poor Getting Poorer?
By Walter E. Williams
October 31, 2007


“Poverty” Like We’ve Never Seen It
By Robert Rector
November 27, 2012


A Poor Way to Measure Poverty
By Rea Hederman
August 31, 2006


Understanding the Hidden $1.1 Trillion Welfare System and How to Reform It
By Robert Rector and Vijay Menon
April 5, 2018

The War on Poverty After 50 Years
By Rachel Sheffield and Robert Rector
September 15, 2014

The War on Poverty: 50 Years of Failure
By Robert Rector
September 23, 2014

How the War on Poverty Was Lost
By Robert Rector
January 7, 2014


The War on Work
By Michael Tanner (Prager University)

The Truth About Poverty
By Stefan Molyneux
January 9, 2014

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