Air Conditioning, Cable TV, and an Xbox: What is Poverty in the United States Today? (Page 3)
by Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield, reprinted from a July 19, 2011 heritage.org article
Temporary food shortages have increased during the current recession but still remain atypical among poor households. During 2009, less than one poor household in five experienced even a single instance of “reduced food intake and disrupted eating patterns” due to a lack of financial resources. Strikingly, only 4 percent of poor children experienced even a single instance of “reduced food intake and disrupted eating patterns” due to a lack of financial resources.
Food Banks and Soup Kitchens
TV news stories that inform audiences that one in seven Americans are poor routinely depict “the poor” collecting free groceries at a food pantry or eating meals at a free food kitchen. The audience is led to conclude that gathering free food from a charity pantry or eating free meals at a soup kitchen is the norm for those in poverty.
In fact, while the use of food pantries and emergency kitchens has increased during the current recession, poor families generally did not use charity food pantries or soup kitchens. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that only one poor family in five took food from a food pantry even once during all of 2009. Far fewer ate at a food kitchen.
In the whole U.S. population, 5.6 million households (4.8 percent of all households) used a food pantry at any point during 2009. Far fewer ate meals at a soup kitchen. Only 625,000 of all U.S. households (0.5 percent) had a member who ate a meal in a free-food kitchen at any time in 2009.
Poverty and Homelessness
The mainstream press and activist groups also frequently conflate poverty with homelessness. News stories about poverty often feature homeless families living “on the street.” This depiction is seriously misleading because only a small portion of persons “living in poverty” will become homeless over the course of a year. The overwhelming majority of the poor reside throughout the year in non-crowded housing that is in good repair.
The 2009 Annual Homeless Assessment Report published by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) states that on a given night in 2009, some 643,000 persons in the U.S. were homeless (without permanent domicile). This means that at any given time, one out of 470 persons in the general population or one out of 70 persons with incomes below the poverty level was homeless.
Moreover, two-thirds of these 643,000 homeless persons were residing in emergency shelters or transitional housing. Only 240,000 were without shelter. These “unsheltered” individuals were “on the street,” meaning that they were living in cars, abandoned buildings, alleyways, or parks. At any point in 2009, roughly one person out of 1,250 in the general population or one out of 180 poor persons was homeless in the literal sense of being on the street and without shelter.
Homelessness is usually a transitional condition. Individuals typically lose housing, reside in an emergency shelter for a few weeks or months, and then reenter permanent housing. The transitional nature of homelessness means that many more people become temporarily homeless over the course of a year than are homeless at any single point in time.
Thus, HUD reports that 1.56 million persons resided in an emergency shelter or transitional housing at least one night during 2009. The year-round total of individuals who ever stayed in a shelter or transitional housing was nearly four times larger than the 403,000 who resided in such facilities on an average night.
Based on the year-round data on shelter use, roughly one person in 195 in the general population resided in emergency shelter or transitional housing for at least one night during a full 12-month period. Roughly one in 25 poor persons (4 percent of all poor persons) resided in an emergency shelter or transitional housing for at least one night during the full year.
Despite news stories that assert that the current recession has caused a great increase in homelessness, homeless shelter use, in general, has not increased during the current economic downturn. In addition, shelters are not overcrowded. On a typical night, shelters have an average vacancy rate of 10 percent.
While the overall number of homeless has not increased during the current recession, there has been a small increase in the number of families with children who use homeless shelters. Some 168,000 families with children resided in a homeless shelter for at least one night during all of 2010. This figure was up from 130,000 in 2007. The increase of 38,000 families represents only one family out every 1,000 families with children. While the misfortune is real for the families involved, these numbers scarcely show a tidal wave of increased homelessness.
Although news stories often suggest that poverty and homelessness are similar, this is inaccurate. In reality, the gap between the living conditions of a homeless person and the typical poor household is proportionately as great as the gap between the poor household and a middle-class family in the suburbs.
Although the public equates poverty with physical deprivation, the overwhelming majority of poor households do not experience any form of physical deprivation. Some 70 percent of poor households report that during the course of the past year, they were able to meet “all essential expenses,” including mortgage, rent, utility bills, and important medical care.
It is widely supposed that the poor are unable to obtain medical care, but in reality, only 13 percent of poor households report that a family member needed to go to a doctor or hospital at some point in the prior year but was unable because the family could not afford the cost.
Public Understanding of Poverty
In 2005, the typical poor household, as defined by the government, had air conditioning and a car. For entertainment, the household had two color televisions, cable or satellite TV, a DVD player, and a VCR. In the kitchen, it had a refrigerator, an oven and stove, and a microwave. Other household conveniences included a clothes washer, clothes dryer, ceiling fans, a cordless phone, and a coffee maker. The family was able to obtain medical care when needed. Their home was not overcrowded and was in good repair. By its own report, the family was not hungry and had sufficient funds during the past year to meet all essential needs.
The overwhelming majority of the public do not regard a family living in these conditions as poor. For example, a poll conducted in June 2009 asked a nationally representative sample of the public whether they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: “A family in the U.S. that has a decent, un-crowded house or apartment to live in, ample food to eat, access to medical care, a car, cable television, air conditioning and a microwave at home should not be considered poor.”
A full 80 percent of Republicans and 77 percent of Democrats agreed that a family living in those living conditions should not be considered poor.
Census Poverty Reports Are Misleading and Inaccurate
Nonetheless, each year, the U.S. Census Bureau issues a report claiming that over 35 million Americans live in poverty. The annual Census poverty report is flawed in two respects.
First, the report provides no information on the actual living conditions of the persons identified as poor. It simply states that a specified number of persons are poor without giving any information on what poverty means in the real world. A detailed description of the living conditions of the poor would greatly enhance public understanding. In fact, without a detailed description of living conditions, public discussions of poverty are meaningless.
Second, the Census report massively undercounts the economic resources provided to poor people. The Census asserts that a household is poor if its “money income” falls below a specified threshold. In 2009, the poverty income threshold for a family of four was $21,756. However, in counting the money income of households, the Census ignores virtually the entire welfare state. For example, there are over 70 means-tested welfare programs that provide cash, food, housing, medical care, and social services to poor and low-income persons. Major means-tested welfare programs include Temporary Assistance for Needy Families; Supplemental Security Income; the Earned Income Tax Credit; food stamps; the Women, Infants, and Children food program; public housing; and Medicaid. (Social Security and Medicare are not means-tested welfare programs.)
In 2008, federal and state governments spent $714 billion on means-tested welfare programs, but the Census counted only about 4 percent of this as “money income” for purposes of determining whether a household was poor. The bottom line is that the economic resources available to poor persons are vastly greater than the Census claims.
In fact, the U.S. Department of Labor finds that the lowest-income one-fifth of households appear to spend $1.87 for every $1.00 of income that the Census says these households have. If the free medical care and public housing subsidies given to these households were counted, then the gap between expenditure and income would be even greater.