Last 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.
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.
Kids and Crime