If You Own An Xbox -- Or An Air Conditioner -- Can You Still Be Considered Poor?

Poverty is one of the least flashy issues in political discourse, but it seems to be getting a renewed focus--at least in some circles. Unfortunately, President Obama’s attempt to focus on the 30 million Americans living in poverty through anti-poverty initiatives got trampled on by Republicans. While the legislation approaches its second stage of voting, there’s little hope that, even if the measures get approved, they would have much of an impact.

Despite that disappointment, two different outlets have recently investigated the changing face of America's poor -- and only one gets it right.

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank, released a report called “Redefining Poverty.” It starts off with a simplistic focus on the material wealth of most Americans, saying they live in relative luxury and that even through Americans' own understanding of poverty (homelessness, hungry people wandering the streets as reported by another survey in the foundation's report), the number of the actual poor are far less than the US Census Bureau would have us believe.

Using graphs and illustrations from 2005, the Heritage Foundation's report seeks to prove that ownership of modern amenities such as cable TV, Xboxes, microwaves and air conditioners is reason to believe that “living standards [of the poor] are far different from the images of dire deprivation promoted by activists and the mainstream media.”

Right. We’ll ignore the fact that the survey used in the Heritage Foundation's report is from the Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS), and it measures just that -- consumption, not ownership. That credit can give the illusion of owning without ownership. We’ll also ignore that the 30 million figure is a low-ball estimate -- 47.8 million is the number sited by the Census Bureau since it updated its poverty formula. We’ll also ignore that asking American citizens to measure their own class status has been proven useless, as most Americans who think they're middle class are actually working class, and so on.

Using material ownership as a means to assess poverty is highly flawed, for two main reasons. Derek Thompson of the Atlantic calls it the “productivity paradox.” Production costs have gone down due not only to new technologies, but the financial success of outsourcing and other neoliberal ventures. Electronics, clothing and even food are cheap or generally affordable for most Americans, regardless of their economic status.

Meanwhile, the true signifiers of American poverty are access to health care, education and the ability to find and keep adequate housing. Contrary to the report’s claims, homelessness has risen in America. Emergency food programs, though inadequate in many ways, have been overwhelmed with the numbers of new people seeking help in order to feed themselves and their families.

Say for a minute that those defined as living in poverty by the Census Bureau do own these modern amenities. It’s no surprise that those living in poverty would, like all Americans, subscribe to even an appearance of living the American Dream. Another accomplishment of capitalism is that success and failure in life are defined as either having or not having enough "stuff."

The Heritage Foundation’s stated goal in putting out its report is to get rid of the “exaggeration and misinformation about poverty [that] obscure the nature, extent, and causes of real material deprivation, thereby hampering the development of well-targeted, effective programs to reduce the problem.” By issuing a report that contains no actual original reporting but only a mish-mash of charts and graphs from 2003, 2005 and 2009 from the US Census and other governmental agencies, the foundation hopes to convince the public that there’s an urgent need to redefine American poverty.

Meanwhile, for City Limits, an investigative magazine based in New York, poverty in the US is worse than the US Bureau paints it. The magazine has devoted its latest issue to examining the face of poverty and the measures taken (and not taken) to temper the growing numbers. In articles that examine each of President Obama’s initiatives and personal narratives that paint the picture of poverty in New York, City Limits seeks to remind the general public of the nation's continuing poverty-related hardships and the lack of policies proposed to address them.

This is where the Heritage Foundation is actually right. The social face of poverty needs to be redefined. The report highlights that the social face of poverty is a picture of absolute destitution and therefore precludes the majority of Americans who just appear to be living comfortably. But as illustrated in City Limits, the social face of poverty is Sharon Jones, an Irish 51-year-old college student living on Social Security benefits, who is the caretaker of her four kids and two grandchildren. It’s Walter Greene, a blue-collar worker for 30 years who now stands in welfare lines. It’s Beverly Davis, who plans on becoming a police officer to receive public benefits and finally get out of poverty.

As City Limits shows, the face of poverty is much more pervasive than the US Census Bureau reports, and certainly a much more serious concern than the Heritage Foundation's report suggests.


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