The poor in America

Americans are a generous people. They've always donated to help the poor.

But over the past 80 years, something changed. Today, while many Americans still make voluntary donations to charity, most of our "charity" takes the form of full-time government workers ministering to the poor, using tax money.

The problem is, bureaucracies and activists have a natural proclivity to define the extent of any perceived crisis or problem as widely as possible, the better to gain public attention and perpetuate their existence. That's why Americans should read Robert Rector's July 26 essay, "Media images of homeless families and hungry children distort poverty policy."

Mr. Rector is with the Heritage Foundation and has spent decades studying poverty in the United States. The Census Bureau reported last fall that 43 million Americans -- one in seven of us -- were poor.

"The most recent government data show that more than half of the families defined as poor by the Census Bureau have a computer in the home." notes Mr. Rector. "More than three of every four poor families have air conditioning, almost two-thirds have cable or satellite television, and 92 percent have microwaves. ... The typical poor family has at least two color TVs, a VCR and a DVD player. One-third have a wide-screen, plasma or LCD TV. And the typical poor family with children has a video-game system such as Xbox or PlayStation."

As for housing, "The typical news story about poverty features a homeless family with kids sleeping in the back of a minivan." Mr Rector notes. "But government data show that only one in 70 poor persons are homeless.

"Another common media image of poverty is a despondent family living in a dilapidated mobile home. But only a tenth of the poor live in trailers; the rest live in houses or apartments, many of which are in good repair."

Meanwhile, groups such as Feed the Children paint a bleak picture, proclaiming that 12 million American children are "at risk" of going hungry. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which conducts the nation's food-consumption and hunger survey, says otherwise.

"During the full course of the year, only one child in 67 was reported 'hungry,' even temporarily, because the family couldn't afford enough food," Mr. Rector reports. "Ninety-nine percent of children did not skip a single meal during 2009 because of lack of financial resources. ...

No, none of this means America's poor live in the lap of luxury. Indeed, some are in dire circumstances and in need of charity. But -- on average -- their lifestyles are equally far from the images of stark deprivation often purveyed by activists and the mainstream media.

Nor is this unimportant or simply some academic exercise intended to dismiss the plight of those truly struggling to survive. "If we as a nation are ever to have a sound anti-poverty policy," Mr. Rector concludes, "it must be based on accurate information on the extent, severity and causes of actual deprivation.

To that end, Mr. Rector's detailed examination should be a vital part of the discussion when policymakers consider how best to deal with poverty in the United States.