Poverty Is Not What You Think It Is

Poverty fell off a cliff after the Second World War. It fell like a stone, including for American blacks. The economy was booming and everyone benefited. The poverty rate dropped from 35 percent in 1950 to less than 20 percent when President Lyndon Johnson, nonetheless, announced his War on Poverty.

By the time the War on Poverty kicked into gear in 1967, the poverty rate had fallen to 14 percent. After the implementation of the War on Poverty, poverty eradication ground to a halt. While it has ticked up and down a few points since that time, today it stands roughly where it stood back in 1967.

The War on Poverty has been witheringly expensive. From 1967 to today we have spent 22 trillion in 2012 dollars on poverty relief. Today the U.S. government runs more than eighty means-tested welfare programs, including cash, food, housing, medical care, and other social services. A whopping hundred million Americans get some kind of aid. That is a third of the population.

Heritage Foundation scholar Robert Rector says, “Adjusted for inflation, this spending (which does not include Social Security or Medicare) is three times the cost of all military wars in US history since the American revolution.” You could say that the War on Poverty has been the least successful and the most expensive war in our history.

What has happened is that we have created what seems to be a permanent underclass and destroyed the main engine of poverty relief, the family.

We are told by the political left in the Church that our adherence to Catholic Social Teaching is tied directly to our support for more federal and state tax dollars thrown at poverty relief. It is always more, never less, no matter how ineffective or even harmful those dollars may be.

How could it be that after such massive government spending we are at the same poverty level as when we started 50 years ago? Well, like in a lot of fake science, there is a bit of a shell game going on. For one, when calculating poverty, the federal government excludes almost all government benefits from the calculation.

In 2014 the New York Times reported the situation of one Anthony Goytia, a Southern California Wal-Mart night-shift worker who said he was reliant on payday loans to pay his bills. The Times reported he was a father of four making “about $16,000 a year.” What the Times did not report is the amount of federal and state benefits he and his family received. He would certainly qualify for assistance, but such benefits are not mentioned. They never are.

Using Department of Labor statistics, Robert Rector of Heritage calculates that “poor families spend $2.40 for every $1.00 of their reported income. If public housing benefits are added to the tally, the ratio of consumption to income rose to $2.60 for every $1.00. In other words, the ‘income’ figures that the Census uses to calculate poverty dramatically undercounts the economic resources available to lower income households.”

So just how poor are America’s poor? Many live lives the middle class of only a few years ago would envy.

In 1967 only 12 percent of all households owned an air-conditioner. Today, 80 percent own one. According to the U.S. Census almost 75 percent of poor households own a car or truck. Thirty percent own more than one. Nearly two-thirds have cable or satellite television. Keep in mind how expensive cable is: upwards of $150 per month. Forty percent own a wide-screen plasma or LCD TV. Fifty percent own a personal computer. Twenty-five percent own a digital recorder. Ninety-two percent own a microwave oven.

What else do the American poor own? This will surprise you, but the poor own houses. As I show in my book, Fake Science, the poverty industry wants you to believe the poor live in dire circumstances: ramshackle homes, crammed ten to a room in cold-water flats, rundown trailers at the end of Tobacco Road. Nothing could be further from the truth. Forty-two percent of poor families own their own homes, and the average home owned by a poor family has three bedrooms, one and a half baths, a garage, and patio or porch. Only 9.5 percent live in mobile homes.

This will surprise you, too. The typical poor person in America has more living space than the typical person living in every European country except Luxembourg. The square footage of the typical poor household in the United States was 1,400 feet in 2005. The non-poor in Austria had 1,060 square feet; Denmark, 1,231 square feet; Germany, 968 square feet. Only Luxembourgers live in larger homes than poor Americans, but only 37 square feet more.

There is so much more. For instance, there is no evidence of malnutrition in America. Nutrient density (amount of vitamins, minerals, and protein per kilocalorie of food) does not vary by income class, according to Robert Rector. Low-income and middle-income people have the same high fat intake. Nutrient intake for well-off preschoolers is the same as that among poor preschoolers. The typical poor person consumes roughly the same amount of nutriment as someone from the middle class. Children below the poverty line actually eat more meat than children from the upper middle class. Poor kids consume protein well above the amount recommended by the government.

One could go on and on with how poverty is not what you think it is, not what you have been led to believe. It is as if the political left has a vested interest in clouding the issue so they can keep the money flowing, both to themselves and to poverty programs. I pointed out two weeks ago that the Feeding America CEO brings in $2 billion a year by scaring folks that starvation stalks our land. He also makes $650,000 per year for himself.

All of this would be threatened if it got out that America’s poor are not as poor as you think. As J.D. Vance explored in his memoir Hillbilly Elegy about growing up in strained circumstances, the real poverty of the poor is spiritual rather than material. Fixing that would require judgements over personal behavior, particularly drug use, alcoholism, sex, violence, and many more pathologies.

Any criticism of federal programs for the poor is met by the political left in the Church with charges of “hating the poor” and that you have committed a mortal sin for supposedly opposing the teachings of the Church. Such charges in this case would be false and defamatory. Rather, this should be read as a call for a realistic view of poverty in America. The poor deserve our love and support. But, in order to alleviate poverty, one must begin with a true picture, and what we have been given to believe is to a large extent fake science.

Editor’s note: In a famous photo-op, President Johnson visits the home of Tom Fletcher, father of eight in eastern Kentucky, who told LBJ that he had been out of work for two years. (Photo credit: AP)

Austin Ruse

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Austin Ruse is president of C-FAM (Center for Family & Human Rights), a New York and Washington DC-based research institute. He is the author of Fake Science: Exposing the Left’s Skewed Statistics, Fuzzy Facts, and Dodgy Data published by Regnery. He is also the author of the new book Little Suffering Souls: Children Whose Short Lives Point Us to Christ published by Tan Books. The views expressed here are solely his own.

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