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Harris Sherline: Extent of Poverty in America Greatly Exaggerated

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 televisions. They contend 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, most of the poor do not experience hunger or food shortages. The Agriculture Department 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.

The politics of guilt and pity gets politicians elected, but it also creates envy by the poor. They think the rest of society has not done enough to help, and their demands are never-ending.

Would a person in India regard poverty in America as a curse? How about one of 600 million farmers in China? Or anyone in sub-Sahara Africa, or perhaps South Africa, where the average income is somewhere between $1 and $2 a day?

In the name of helping the poor, the welfare state expands into every area of our lives and brings with it the intrusive snooping and demands of the government.

The Heritage Foundation’s Morning Bell posting on Sept. 13, 2011, noted the following facts about people who are defined as “poor” by the Census Bureau:

» 80 percent of poor households have air conditioning.

» 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 television.

» 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 television.

» One-fourth have a digital video recorder system, such as a TiVo.

» “Poor” households also had a washer and dryer, ceiling fans, a cordless phone and a coffee maker.

» “... the typical poor American had more living space than the average European (Note: That’s average European, not poor European).

» “The average poor family was able to obtain medical care when needed. When asked, most poor families stated they had had sufficient funds during the past year to meet all essential
needs.”

» “By its own report, the family was not hungry.”

Obviously, some poor families are better off than others, but in general, the poor in America are far better off than most people around the world, especially those in places such as Africa, Haiti, most of India and many countries in the Middle East.

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 in which the poor live today are intractable and without hope, that there is always a need for 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. 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 of 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.

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.

— Harris Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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