‘Let Them Eat Cake’ 2011-Style

kids and crimeLast week, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank located in Washington D.C., published this report claiming poverty in the United States was mostly a myth.  Entitled “Air Conditioning, Cable TV and an XBox: What is Poverty in the United States Today?” the report argued that poverty largely did not exist in America because most who live below the poverty line own such basic items as refrigerators, microwaves, television sets, and kitchen stoves.

Tellingly,  the report does not consider that refrigerators and stoves are standard appliances in rental housing (which, according to the report’s own statistics, 53% of those below the poverty line live in), or that although 27.5% of poor households own more than one VCR, it doesn’t mean that both were not hand-me downs, or that neither one of them works.  In fact, conspicuously missing from the report is how poverty-stricken households obtained these items, whether they are even functioning, or the items’ age.

Of course, the argument that the poor have no right to dignity is as old as America. Post-Enlightenment understandings of poverty focused on the individual and the understanding of poverty as being both natural and incapable of being eradicated.   With this shift, the solution to poverty was no longer to raise taxes and feed and house the poor in the homes of fellow community members or to give them tax breaks. Instead, the solution was to either act as though it would all simply go away or to understand that the poor person was both at fault and in dire need of a spiritual or moral remedy.

At the same time,  capitalist economics hailed the accumulation of wealth as a “natural right,” making it immoral to expect communities to tax the wealthy to pay for the poorer members as they had done in the early colonial period.  Rather than understanding the poor as neighbors in need of assistance, by the 19th century the poor were understood as lazy, morally corrupt, and in need of shaming.  This shift is fundamental in understanding subsequent, modern welfare policies in which a “hand up” is grudgingly allowed, but never a “hand out,” and in which the poor were no longer understood as neighbors but a class of society.

Marian Adin

This current report, ultimately,  is nothing more than the same old attempt to downplay the realities of poverty in America and what it means for our children.  As a record number of Americans live below the poverty line  to claim that poor children are doing well because they grow up to be “one inch taller and 10 pounds heavier than the GIs… in World War II” or that “the poorest Americans today live a better life than all but the richest persons a hundred years ago” only serves to show how awful it was one hundred years ago, not how wonderful it is today.  Personally, I want to know that a child, born in the South Bronx today, has as much nutrition, education, and opportunity as one of the Kardashians – not that their life is comparably better to a Mongolian during the age of Ghengis Khan.

The reality is that one in five children live in poverty in America – and in our rural areas, the numbers are one in four.  That’s more than 28 million children  who by the age of four are typically 18 months behind developmentally compared to their peers, are statistically more likely to be obese due to lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and who will cost the nation billions of dollars as they age and are fed into the school-to-prison pipeline.

Ultimately, living in poverty doesn’t mean having nothing – it means not having the things that really matter. It means inadequate schools, inadequate foods, and inadequate choices.  Having a $20 DVD player and a ceiling fan isn’t going to change that. Nor is finding a coffee pot for a dollar at a yard sale or Grandma buying their grandkid an Xbox for Christmas. The only thing that can change these numbers, and what they really mean, is for people like researchers at the Heritage Foundation to stop distracting us from the reality of poverty in America.

Mariah Adin
Kids and Crime 


  1. says

    Ok claiming that the VCRs owned by the poor might be non-functional doesn’t work because the report is based on energy USAGE (U.S. Department of Energy, Residential Energy Expenditure Survey, 2005).  Presumably they didn’t ask about non-working VCRs. But really what are you complaining about?  The “poor” have lives that are excellent by the standards of every time before mid-20th century and almost every country even if the 20th century.  You claim that they want to deny the poor “dignity”, does dignity require cable TV?  Because my grandfather never had it and he had dignity.  It is one thing to say we should feed the poor, another to say we should repair their Xbox. 

  2. bigbadjohn says

    i cant believe what has happened to my country. if this is even my country anymore. i see the poor every day, and i have never seen them living good on the system…….the system…….it exists to give people a helping hand when they need it. and they need it more now than ever. but the tea / repubs want to turn the clock back to every man for himself. i pray for the day that the wealthy of this nation just once feels what its like to go hungry , to wonder where they will sleep that night , and to feel the hopelessness that the poor feel every day of their lives.

  3. Wanda says

    ThIs is interesting that a religious right think tank would claim that poverty doesn’t exist in America. Have you driven through a church parking lot and noticed the average age of a vehicle is around 5 years? You don’t see people of poverty or low income in church. I noticed this about 20 years ago in several communities I frequent.
    Recently I read that the reason Republicans/Teas are out to destroy Medicaid is because they truly believe, from reports by the Heratige Foundation, that those in poverty can afford health insurance.
    I remember when Ronald Reagan demonized welfare by describing women on welfare as queens driving pink Cadilac convertables. At the time, I was on welfare because my ex-husband wasn’t paying child support. I’ve never considered Republican ideology or political philosophy since and I’ve never found a reason to.

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