Do Americans Know What Poverty Is?
|August 13, 2012||Posted by Roshawn Watson under Personal Finance, US Economy|
Increasingly, I’ve become aware that the definitions of “poverty” and “low income” have changed. Fortunately, long gone are the times during the Great Depression where the typical poor would get into bread lines for rations. During the Great Recession, it is a decidedly different portrait altogether (not to diminish anyone’s suffering). Over the years, we have lightly addressed “broke people” trying to look wealthy with My Big, Fat, Trashy Home, The Phony Rich, Broke People Stop Giving Me Financial Advice, Broke People Afford Everything, and many others articles. The truth is that there is a serious ongoing debate as what constitute being “poor” in America. Political arguments and ideology aside, do Americans even know what poverty is?
Data Suggest Some Technology are Shared Equally By “Poor” and “Nonpoor” Alike
One reason it is difficult to define who is poor in America nowadays is because you can not presume wealth based on possessions. Many modern conveniences once considered luxuries are now taken for granted and deemed “essential.” If this sounds exaggerated, consider that 62% of households earning less than $20,000 per year own between 2 and 4 televisions compared to 68% of those earning $120,000 or more. While the 2009 Residential Energy Consumption Survey didn’t provide statistical analysis for this comparison, I wouldn’t be surprised if those numbers were statistically the same. Moreover, the Heritage Foundation found that nearly two-thirds of poor households have cable or satellite TV, and greater than half of poor households with children have a video game system, such as Xbox or Playstation.
Sixty-two percent of households earning less than $20,000 per year own between 2 and 4 televisions compared to 68% of those earning $120,000 or more.
Of course, not all technology is equally shared at all income levels. For instance, 52% of the lowest income families do not have a computer compared with a mere 3% of the highest income homes. Likewise, around 69% of the poorest households do not use a dishwasher while only 10% of the richest are without this convenience. Nonetheless, the data certainly indicate that depicting the typical American poor as being extremely deprived may not be entirely accurate.
Related Article: My Big, Fat, Trashy Home: The Fall of the McMansion
Who are the “Poor” Anyway?…. Apparently Almost Everybody!
Part of the challenge in defining poverty is the measure used to classify income. For example, did you know half of the people in the US are considered “poor” or “low income?” That shocking statistic comes from USA Today: “48% of Americans — 146.4 million people — were either in poverty or were low income, meaning they earned between 100% and 199% of the poverty level.” That perfectly illustrates just how all encompassing our definition of “poor” can be. The data suggest that poverty, what many people would consider a deviation from normal (i.e., the middle class), is downright commonplace. In fact, with half of the US qualifying as poor or low income, anyone would be hard-pressed to find someone NOT affected directly or indirectly by poverty.
Related Article: The Phony Rich
One obvious downside, with no disrespect or insensitivity intended, to defining poverty and low income so broadly in the US is that it diminishes the potency of what being poor really means. I attended a recent show by comedian Bill Cosby, and he indicated that many of us today have very little concept of what being poor really meant during his childhood (i.e., before television was invented). Based on his description of his parents denying his request for 10 cents to purchase the “best (toy) race car in world” (and other funny musings), I’m inclined to agree, inflation or not. I suspect some of us have strong cognitive biases to reject any notion that we’re not as poor as we think we are; after all, wealth is constantly portrayed negatively anyway, so many of us harbor inherent negativity towards wealth (even if they are subconscious). Additionally, being labelled as poor also shields us from criticism for not being able to afford a more affluent lifestyle or having “too much.” If everyone is struggling to make it, there’s solidarity rather than division and strife.
Related Article: Broke People Stop Giving Me Financial Advice
Nonetheless, I find myself wondering if our broad definition of poverty is why so many wealthy Americans go abroad to enrich the lives of the poor from other countries before looking domestically: not because they are global citizens in the activist sense but rather because they feel that the typical American poor are not truly poor to begin with (relatively speaking of course). For example, the Heritage Report found that poor Americans had more living space than average-income Europeans. The space limitations of Europe notwithstanding, that’s still particularly telling.
“If you took the typical poor household(s) and put them on TV, no one would think they are poor… they struggle to make ends meet, but they are not in any type of deprivation.” (Robert Rector, author of the Heritage Foundation report)
Consumption-based versus Necessities-based Definition of Poverty
Another challenge in defining what makes households “poor” stems from whether you are focusing on consumption or needs. Consumption wise, you may not be able to readily distinguish the “poor” from the “middle class.” For instance, sure there were notable differences between computers and dishwashers ownership present between low and high income levels but not when you looked at subscriptions to cable and satellite and ownership of televisions, video games, and DVD players. However, if you instead investigate who was struggling the most to provide health care, child care, transportation, and many other things that are typically characterized as basic necessities, advocates say that the poor are disproportionately affected. Advocates also claim access to these needs should be the focus of the debate and aid while detractors argue that the fact that possessions do not reliably delineate the poor from those with high incomes in itself suggests that significant progress has been made.
Related Article: Broke People Afford Everything
Often we talk about the average millionaire being misrepresented in the media and the difficulty in defining the middle class, but perhaps we should now add the poor to the list of those mischaracterized and misunderstood.
What say you? Is challenging the notion that of how bad off the poor are simply a “mean-spirited… attempt to deflect any discussion of the causes of the economic collapse…(while) there’s a growing chasm between the haves and the have-nots?” Alternatively, have the media and and low-income advocacy groups used such a broad brush when describing the “poor” and “low income” that such terms are now exaggerated, lacking potency, and void of any substantive meaning? In short, can you be poor with a flat screen HDTV and new smartphone?
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My Big, Fat, Trashy Home: The Fall of the McMansion
The Phony Rich
Broke People Afford Everything
Broke People Stop Giving Me Financial Advice
The Impossible Question: Just Who Is The Middle Class
Image Credit: psd
Warning: Due to the sensitivity of the subject matter of this post, I recognize that strong feelings on both sides of the issue may be evoked. Please be advised that in no way is this article meant to be an attack on anyone or endorse of any political ideology. I am simply addressing the topic. Please keep comments respectful!