Poverty in America Loses Its Meaning

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Poverty in America Loses Its Meaning

The United States is the richest country in the world. The standard of living is higher here than anywhere else. One of the implications of this is that the poorest people in our nation are far richer, in material possessions, than the middle classes of most other nations. In short, the term poverty can take on wildly different meanings. It is a relative term and has no absolute value.

According to the Heritage Foundation, a reasonable definition of poverty would be an inability to obtain food, clothing, and shelter. But only a small percentage of the 37 million people identified by the U.S. Census Bureau as “poor” are facing such extremes.1

In fact, most of those people live in conditions that would have been considered perfectly acceptable to most Americans just a few generations ago. For instance, the people in the lowest quintile in terms of income spend as much in constant dollars as the median American household did as recently as 1970.

Most of these so-called “poor people” have homes with plenty of room, air conditioning, cars, cable or satellite television, a VCR or DVD, a microwave oven, a refrigerator, a stove, a clothes washer and dryer, an audio system, and a dishwasher. A third of poor households have both cellular and land-line telephones. A third also have telephone answering machines. Most of them have more living space than the average European.

The average diet for America’s poor is well above recommended caloric intake for human beings. They grow up on average to be one inch taller and 10 pounds heavier than people of similar age in the 1940s. While some of the people designated as poor suffer from temporary hunger due to mismanagement of resources, only 2 percent report that they don’t have enough to eat as a general rule.

Most of those children who are experiencing what could be considered real poverty are in that position because of a parent who doesn’t work enough. The typical one-parent home designated as “poor” logs just 800 hours of work a year, or 16 hours a week. If that parent — usually a woman — worked a 40-hour week, or 2,000 hours a year, her children would be raised above the poverty level. Moreover, if poor mothers married the fathers of their children, their children would immediately enjoy a normal standard of living.

Many alternative approaches to this problem have been considered. But, history shows that “giving people something for nothing” breeds helplessness. It eliminates the “confidence bred of achievement” that is so essential to survival...

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