4 Bogus Right-Wing Theories About Poverty, and the Real Reason Americans Can’t Make Ends Meet (Hard Times USA)
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When is a secret not at all secret? Consider the fact that one in three Americans are poor, if we define it as struggling to cover the basic necessities of life. That's according to a Census Bureau analysis, and it was reported in the New York Times, but I have yet to hear a politician or pundit make reference to this eye-opening reality of our vaunted “new economy.”
In 2011, the Census Bureau took a new look at the “near-poor” – Americans with incomes between 100 and 150 percent of the poverty line. They found that this group, most of whom earn paychecks and pay taxes, represented a whopping one in six U.S. households – a figure that was almost twice as high as had previously been thought.
When those under the poverty line are added, Census found that a stunning 33 percent of the population was struggling to make ends meet in 2010. Analyzing the Census data, the Working Poor Project suggested that the number of near-poor, which they define as those making between 100 and 200 percent of the poverty line, continued to inch up in 2011 as many returning to work in this sluggish recovery have been forced to settle for lower-paying service jobs.
Nearly four years after economists tell us the “recovery” began, almost half of all American households lack enough savings to stay above the poverty line for three months or more if they should find themselves out of work. Another third are living paycheck to paycheck, teetering on the brink with no savings at all.
It would require a lengthy sociological treatise to fully explain why this isn't considered a huge national crisis. But one part of the equation is the existence of a long-standing and ideologically informed project by the right to portray the burden of living in or near poverty as a liberal delusion. In these narratives, which come in a variety of forms, the poor have it pretty darn good – good enough that we really shouldn't spend much time thinking about them.
For these conservative think-tankers, pundits and politicians, obscuring America's grinding poverty and spiraling inequality is an exercise in service of a status quo that works pretty well for them, but not for most families.
1. But the poor have color TVs.
Consider the boilerplate conservative column about how many wondrous household appliances the average low-income household owns. Back in the 1930s, this argument goes, poor people didn't have running water, but now they have color TVs, so life is good.
As I write this, my local Craigslist offers multiple televisions, a dining set, several treadmills, a mountain bike, an oven (with hood), a blender, a coffeemaker, a slew of couches and beds, a piano, a hot-tub (needs repair) and a complete stereo system, all free to anyone who will pick them up. We live in a consumer economy that creates an abundance of surplus and rapidly obsolete goods, and people who struggle to put food on the table can nonetheless get their hands on all manner of electronics for nothing.
2. The poor have lots of room to enjoy poverty.
A similar argument holds that in the United States, poor people have more living space, on average, than low-income households in other developed nations. As the Wall Street Journal was eager to point out, “The average living space for poor American households is 1,200 square feet. In Europe, the average space for all households, not just the poor, is 1,000 square feet.”
Perhaps that's true, but it's also divorced from context. There is a simple matter of population density at work: in the core states of the European Union, there are 120 people per square kilometer; in the United States, we only have 29 people per kilometer. And the average is a bit misleading as it includes the rural poor – low-income households in tightly packed urban centers don't tend to have 1,200-square-foot apartments.