- The Washington Times - Monday, September 27, 2004

Last month, the Census Bureau released annual poverty figures showing poor Americans rose from 12.1 percent of the population in 2002 to 12.5 percent in 2003.

It’s important to recognize these figures are a year old. They cover 2003, not this year. Given current economic conditions, it is very likely poverty fell during 2004, though the official figures won’t be available until the fall of next year.

Poverty is a lagging economic indicator. Formal recessions (when the whole economy is shrinking) usually last less than a year. But the poverty rate almost always continues rising several years after the recession ends. The last recession officially ended in November 2001, but the poverty rate continued to rise in 2002 and 2003. This is a normal economic pattern that has occurred in most prior recessions.

Compared to prior recessions, the recent recession was mild and had limited effect on poverty. Overall, poverty increase due to the recent downturn has been half the increase of the two last recessions, in the early 1980s and early 1990s.

Still, the Census Bureau reports 35.9 million persons “lived in poverty” in 2003, a number which should concern everyone. But to really understand poverty in America, it’s important to look behind these numbers — to the actual living conditions of those the government deems poor.

For most Americans, “poverty” suggests destitution: an inability to provide a family with nutritious food, clothing and reasonable shelter. But only a small number of the million persons classified as “poor” by the Census Bureau fit that description. Real material hardship certainly occurs, but it is limited in scope and severity. Most of America’s “poor” live in material conditions that would have been judged comfortable or well-off just a few generations ago.

The following are facts about persons defined as “poor” by the Census Bureau, taken from various government reports:

• Forty-six percent of all poor households own their own homes. The average home owned by persons the Census Bureau classifies as poor is a three-bedroom house with 11/2 baths, a garage and porch or patio.

• Seventy-six percent of poor households have air conditioning. By contrast, 30 years ago, only 36 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.

• Only 6 percent of poor households are overcrowded. More than two-thirds have more than two rooms per person.

• The average poor American has more living space than the average resident of Paris, London, Vienna, Athens and other European cities. (These comparisons are to the average citizens in foreign countries, not to those classified as poor.)

• Nearly three-quarters of poor households own a car; 30 percent own two or more cars.

• Ninety-seven percent of poor households have a color television. More than half own two or more color televisions.

• Seventy-eight percent have a VCR or DVD player; 62 percent have cable or satellite TV reception.

• Seventy-three percent own a microwave oven, more than half have a stereo, and a third have an automatic dishwasher.

Overall, the typical American defined as poor by the government has a car, air conditioning, a refrigerator, a stove, a clothes washer and dryer and a microwave. He has two color televisions, cable or satellite TV reception, a VCR or DVD player, and a stereo. He can obtain medical care. His home is in good repair and not overcrowded. By his own report, his family isn’t hungry, and he had enough money in the last year to meet his family’s essential needs.

While this person’s life is not opulent, it is equally far from the popular images of dire poverty conveyed by the press, activists and politicians.

Even better news: Remaining poverty can readily be reduced, especially among children. Child poverty in the U.S. is caused largely by low parental work and by absence of fathers from the home. While work and marriage are the surest ladders out of poverty, the welfare system continues rewarding idleness and discouraging marriage.

To further reduce poverty, welfare should be overhauled: All able-bodied welfare recipients should be required to work or prepare for work in exchange for aid, and marriage in low-income areas should be actively encouraged, not penalized.

The 1996 welfare reform law has been a clear-cut success, but we can do even better — if we take the right steps now.

Robert Rector is a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

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