Defining Poverty Not So Simple in Land of Plenty

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), November 11, 2011 | Go to article overview

Defining Poverty Not So Simple in Land of Plenty


The "poverty issue" opens a vast highway system of social and economic observations headed in every direction. Some say poverty is a national disgrace. Some say it's the poor people's own fault. Some say the government must end it through bigger subsidies and more services for the poor -- others by reducing that help and instead expanding economic opportunity.

The most interesting battle rages over the very definition of poverty in this land of plenty. Conservatives often argue that the official poverty line has been set too high. Many who live below it are actually doing reasonably well. Liberals frequently answer that, no, poverty is worse and more widespread than the government count would suggest.

Conservatives are right about one thing: The federal government's longtime metric for drawing the poverty line is primitive and does exaggerate the hardship felt in this country. (It is being replaced by a more sophisticated model, also controversial.) Amazingly, the old measurement doesn't count food stamps, tax credits and other government benefits in toting up incomes.

But while conservatives stand on solid ground in their complaints over how poverty gets determined, their broader arguments can be fairly heartless. One of them requires rummaging through poor people's possessions for signs of high living. That is neither nice nor revealing.

Case in point is a recent Heritage Foundation report holding that most Americans defined as poor really aren't. The evidence: In 2005, the typical "poor" household had a car and air conditioning. It had one or more color TVs, cable or satellite service and a DVD player. If there were children, it had a game system, such as Xbox or PlayStation.

We all get the point, made by authors Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield. …

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