Complaining about the poor having appliances misses real problems of being poor

Image of a Shanty in 1930's

About ten years ago I was trying to explain to someone on an e-mail list I was a member of that I was poor. My apartment was junky, my car barely ran, I couldn’t afford a cell phone or high speed Internet. He laughed. He said I wasn’t poor because I had a computer with Internet access, a car, and air conditioning. Even though I had a temporary job that paid barely above minimum wage and I was one pay check away from being homeless my friend said since I had stuff I wasn’t poor. This is not the first and probably not the last time people judge another’s worth by the stuff they have instead of the actual issues with having little to no income like education and health care.

STUART VARNEY (guest host): A new report showing poor families in the United States are not what they used to be. Now, many poor families have homes with cable TV, cell phones, computers, you name it — much, much, more. My next guest is digging up all of this stuff. Robert Rector is with the Heritage Foundation.

Robert, I’m just going to give our viewers a quick run-through of what items poor families in America have. Ninety-nine percent of them have a refrigerator. Eighty-one percent have a microwave. Seventy-eight percent have air conditioning. Sixty-three percent have cable TV. Fifty-four percent have cell phones. Forty-eight percent have a coffee maker — I’m not surprised, they’re only about 10 bucks. Thirty-eight percent have a computer. Thirty-two percent have more than two TVs. Twenty-five percent have a dishwasher.

This, Sir, Mr. Rector, is very different what it was just a few years ago, isn’t it?

ROBERT RECTOR (Heritage Foundation senior research fellow): No, actually what you see is that the living standards of the poor have increased rather steadily for the last 30 years. And in fact, the poverty report has not accurately reflected their living conditions really for several decades.

VARNEY: Now, I understand that today, the federal government says 14 percent of the population lives in poverty, and that’s roughly the same as it was back in 1966, before all the Great Society programs. But doesn’t that look poverty as a financial, a monetary thing?

RECTOR: Yes, part of the reason that when you look at the actual living conditions of the 43 million people that the Census says are poor, you see that in fact, they have all these modern conveniences. If you ask them, did your family have enough food to eat at all times during the last year, the overwhelming majority will say yes. If you ask them were you able to meet any medical needs you may have had, they will say yes.

The typical poor family in the United States lives in a house or an apartment and actually has more living space than the average European. Not a poor European, but the average Frenchman or the average German.

So, in fact, there really isn’t any connection between the government’s identification of poor people and the actual living standards and the typical American — when an American hears the word “poverty,” he’s thinking about somebody that doesn’t have enough food to eat, someone that’s possibly homeless. It’s not true. 

[Fox News, Your World with Neil Cavuto, 7/19/11]

I have not owned a refrigerator since my college days when I had a small dorm sized one. EVERY apartment I’ve lived in had a stove and refrigerator for a start. The one I live in now came with a dishwasher. I recently replaced a twenty year old microwave with a new one that only cost $84. Go to a thrift store and you can probably find a used TV or microwave for no more than $50.

Image of a shack in the 1930's

I guess cheap labor conservatives like Stuart Varney and the others at FOX “news” want the poor to look like they did in the 1930’s, during the Great Depression, with holes in your clothes and living in shanty towns by the railroad.

They forget or ignore that even though the poor’s living conditions are not like they are for the poor in other countries, that doesn’t mean they aren’t poor. There are other issues that affect the poor in this country.

Matthew Yglesias at ThinkProgress wrote:

A serious person would follow this up with a discussion of relative prices. Over the past 50 years, televisions have gotten a lot cheaper and college has gotten a lot more expensive. Consequently, even a low income person can reliably obtain a level of television-based entertainment that would blow the mind of a millionaire from 1961. At the same time, if you’re looking to live in a safe neighborhood with good public schools in a metropolitan area with decent job opportunities you’re going to find that this is quite expensive. Health care has become incredibly expensive. 

Poverty Is Mostly About Housing, Health Care, And Education

This why we have the social safety net, to protect the vulnerable from destitution. Even the guy who helped write the report Varney was featuring agrees:

ROBERT RECTOR (Heritage Foundation senior research fellow): No, actually what you see is that the living standards of the poor have increased rather steadily for the last 30 years.

Anyone who wants to see the return of shanty towns needs a heart transplant or their head removed from their asses.

Image of man walking in 1930's shanty town