Tuesday, June 19 , 2018, 6:01 am | Fair 53º


Harris Sherline: The Poverty Hype

When compared with others around the world, America's 'poor' really don't have it so bad

Imagine, if you can, living in a one-room hut with a dirt floor, little or no shelter from the elements, no running water or electricity, in a community that has only dirt roads, no doctors or medical facilities, no police protection, no schools, no employment, where the average annual income is often as little as a dollar a day, starvation and death are constant companions, grinding deprivation is so severe that parents are often forced to sell their children into servitude or prostitution, and infant mortality is extremely high. It is truly a bleak picture.

Harris Sherline
Harris Sherline

Life expectancy in many places is very short, as low as 33.2 years in some parts of Africa (where AIDS has taken a devastating toll), compared with the low 80s elsewhere around the world.

There are far too many places on this Earth where there is no law, no safety or security, where abuse by those in power is simply considered the rightful spoils of controlling the government, and where there is little or no freedom because of government repression.

The World Bank has described the nature of poverty as follows: “Poverty is hunger. Poverty is lack of shelter. Poverty is being sick and not being able to see a doctor. Poverty is not being able to go to school and not knowing how to read. Poverty is not having a job, is fear for the future, living one day at a time. Poverty is losing a child to illness brought about by unclean water. Poverty is powerlessness, lack of representation and freedom.”

According to GlobalIssues.org, the World Bank defines extreme poverty as living on less than $1.25 per day at 2005 prices, and moderate poverty as living on $2 a day. It is estimated that nearly 1.1 billion people had consumption levels below $1 a day, 2.7 billion live on less than $2 a day and at least 80 percent live on less than $10 a day.

If poverty means subsisting on less than $2 a day throughout much of the world, what does it look like in America today, where it is generally defined on the basis of income? At the risk of oversimplification, the income thresholds used by the Health and Human Services Department range from $10,800 for a single person to $37,010 for a family of eight in the 48 contiguous states and Washington, D.C. It’s slightly higher in Alaska and Hawaii. What’s important about this is the dramatic contrast with the $456 to $730 annual income of those the World Bank says are living in poverty elsewhere around the world.

But income isn’t the only measure. The following criteria are used to describe poverty in a study titled “The Myth of Widespread American Poverty” by Robert Rector, who defined it on the basis of material hardship:

» The individual frequently lacks food to eat or is significantly undernourished because of an inability to afford or obtain sufficient food.

» The individual lives in housing that is severely overcrowded (with more than 1.5 persons per room), severely dilapidated or is unsafe.

» The individual has a significant, health-impairing medical condition requiring treatment and can’t afford or otherwise obtain medical care.

The problem is that when it comes to defining poverty, the government keeps moving the goal posts.

Rector also observed that “many of the popular conceptions about poverty in this nation are inaccurate, particularly the image of poverty as a static and unyielding condition. ... We have not only triumphed over poverty as it was historically understood, but that triumph has been so great that we have difficulty remembering what it meant to be poor or even to be middle class in earlier generations.”

His study concluded: “Today the typical American, defined as poor by the government, has a refrigerator, a stove, a clothes washer, a car, air conditioning, a VCR, a microwave, a stereo and a color TV. He is able to obtain medical care, and his home is in good repair and is not overcrowded. By his own report, his family is not hungry, and in the last year he had sufficient funds to meet his essential needs. While this individual’s life is not opulent, it is equally far from the popular images of poverty conveyed by politicians, the press and activists.”

Dating back to the early years of the War on Poverty launched by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, the American public has been systematically misled by politicians, bureaucrats and activists into believing that poverty in the United States has grown progressively worse with each generation and that the conditions of those who live in this circumstance today are intractable and without hope, always in need of ever greater and more expensive government programs to overcome the disadvantages of those who are “living in poverty.”

Poverty has become an industry in America. And, like all industries, its goal is to grow the business, including advertising to attract customers (clients) and encouraging people to sign up for free services, sometimes even if they don’t actually qualify. If and when most of us think about it at all, we probably assume that the goal is to eradicate poverty and eventually go out of business. Not so. Who’s going to do that?

It turns out that the number of people counted as living in poverty is more a matter of definition than reality. By systematically adjusting the income levels that are used to determine who is included and omitting various noncash measures or economic circumstances — such as Medicare or Medicaid insurance, the value of homes, ownership of stoves, refrigerators, TVs, autos and other property — the living conditions of America’s poor are generally portrayed as being much worse than they really are.

We need to rethink our attitudes about how the poor are viewed in America, particularly when compared with the poor around the rest of the world — $10,800 to more than $37,010 a year in cash income, plus Medicare or Medicaid health insurance, plus the value of homes, autos, stoves, refrigerators, TVs, VCRs, free education, etc., vs. $365 to $730 a year on which to subsist elsewhere.

Say what you will about the quality or lack of quality or sufficiency of any of the benefits that America’s poor may receive from the government, or the need for improvement. The fact remains that no one living in poverty anywhere else in the world has anything approaching the advantages that America’s poor enjoy.

So, when compared with the poor throughout the rest of the world, America’s poor are not really poor at all.

— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who has lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his blog, Opinionfest.com.

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