Why I’m Not Surprised by Heritage’s "Surprising" Poverty Facts

September 21, 2011

At the Inequalities blog, Brendan Saloner, citing a perennial report from the Heritage Foundation, notes: “… many of the so-called poor appear to be living at a more middle-class standard. Most of them have fridges, microwaves, televisions, and even air conditioning and game systems. There are data that support this point, and it needs to be addressed. I have not heard a clear response from leftwing commentators.”

There’s actually no dearth of responses, including ones from Stephen Colbert and the Center for American Progress. Here’s Colbert: 

And you would not believe some of the stuff poor people have in their homes! Luxuries like ceiling fans, DVD players, answering machines, and coffee makers. I don’t have those things. I have central air, a Blu-Ray player, voicemail, and I go to Starbucks every day. Must be nice. Must be pretty nice.

I also recently had the chance to respond to Heritage’s Robert Rector in a public radio debate with him. Rector’s message is that we shouldn’t be too concerned about economic insecurity and declining real incomes among the working class and middle class. In support of this message, he points to data showing that among households with income below the federal poverty line in 2005—an austere $19,806 for a family of two parents and two children that year, less than half of the income most Americans say such a family needs to “get along” at a basic level—most have refrigerators and cars, and some have computers and even own homes.

Although he’s been making the same argument in reports and the mainstream media for more than two decades now—see, e.g., his “America’s Poverty Myth” in the Wall Street Journal in 1992—Rector complains the mainstream media rarely reports on what he calls “surprising facts.” Whether you think Rector’s data is surprising may depend on what assumptions and preconceptions you have about “poverty.” If you think of people with incomes below the poverty line in a particular year as being “a different kind of people” from working-class and middle-class people, a distinct group that has “calcified into a seemingly permanent underclass” (an unfortunate assertion made in 2005 by Sen. Jim Webb), then maybe you will be surprised to learn that some of them own computers. This is where Rector seems to be coming from. In our debate, he was adamant that he was talking only about “The Poor” and not about the working class or middle class.

On the other hand, if you think of income poverty as something that happens mostly to working-class people and sometimes to middle-class people, and don’t mentally cordon off people who struggle at times to live on very low incomes as a distinct (under-)class of their own, then you don’t find it surprising that 38.2 percent of them had personal computers. Instead, you note that computer ownership, as well as broadband access and internet use, rise steadily as income rises, with low-income people about half as likely to own a computer as higher-income ones. You also worry about the effect this “digital divide” will have on our nation’s future economic growth and prosperity, as well as individual opportunity, and start thinking about policies that would help close the divide.

I think income poverty—and economic insecurity more generally—is best understood in the latter, non-essentialist sense. So do most people with incomes below the poverty line. When surveys ask them about how they identify in class terms, most of them say either “working class” or “middle class.” They don’t mark themselves off as “the poor” or as an “underclass” in the way that Rector does.

Still, Rector is probably correct when he writes that the word “poverty” comes with more specific and extreme associations for many people:

For most Americans, the word “poverty” suggests destitution: an inability to provide a family with nutritious food, clothing, and reasonable shelter. For example, the Poverty Pulse poll taken by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development asked the general public: “How would you describe being poor in the U.S.?” The overwhelming majority of responses focused on homelessness, hunger or not being able to eat properly, and not being able to meet basic needs. That perception is bolstered by news stories about poverty that routinely feature homelessness and hunger.

Rector also seems to believe that this understanding helps progressives and impedes conservative attempts to limit social insurance and protections for workers. (If he didn’t, why else would he spend so much time trying to debunk it?) But it seems more likely that much of the conventional understanding of poverty limits progressive efforts to reduce it.  The “Poverty Pulse” poll cited by Rector includes other questions that provide evidence of this:

  • While most people think of poverty as an extreme state, they also believe a very small percentage of Americans live in poverty. The median response in the poll thought that 2 million people were living in poverty (this compares with 46 million today, and 35.9 million when the poll was conducted). The median response for the number of homeless was 1 million (closer to the actual number then, of around 2-3 million).

  • Only 1 percent named poverty as the single biggest problem facing the United States. When asked about other problems, only 4 percent noted poverty. (This low number is particularly striking, if, as appears to be the case, the question came at the end of the poll, after people had been asked a series of questions about poverty.)

  • “Lack of education” was the answer most commonly given as the most significant cause of poverty, just above “personal laziness/lack of initiative.” “Better education” was the answer most commonly given as the best way to reduce poverty.

In sum, there’s not much here to cheer progressives who would like to see a large-scale effort to reduce poverty, at least if they frame it in this fashion. People certainly think poverty is bad, but mostly they don’t think about it much at all or think many people experience it. When they do think about it, they see education as the leading solution. (More education is generally a good idea—but unless coupled with more good jobs, and better social insurance, it will have a modest impact on poverty—the educational attainment of low-income workers has increased steadily over the last several decades, their wages have not).

One way to counter these views would be through a public campaign designed to convince people that 46 million people live in poverty, but I’m skeptical that this would have much effect.

A better approach would rely on an implicit (and unintended) message of Rector’s research: that the differences between working-class and middle-class people, between low-income and middle-income ones, are differences of degree and not of extremes. Both groups are in this economy together, both groups depend on each other, both have seen their incomes and assets decline over the last decade as a result of misguided conservative economic policies, and both need to work together to build a movement to “make markets progressive.”

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