4 Bogus Right-Wing Theories About Poverty

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 five 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.

3. The poor are actually rolling in money.

A new and equally distorted argument entered the conservative discourse just recently. It holds that poor families receive $168 per day in government benefits – more than the median weekly income in this country. If that were true, low-income households in the United States would enjoy quite comfortable living standards.

But as I noted last month, that number is inflated by around eight-fold. The claim originated with Robert Rector at the Heritage Foundation and then underwent some revisions on its journey to Republican congressional staffers, and finally to the conservative media. It gets to that number by counting things like federal aid to rebuild communities after natural disasters as “welfare,” including programs that assist the middle class and the wealthy and then dividing the costs of all these programs by the number of households under the poverty line, despite the fact that many more families benefit from them.

4. It’s just how they are.

And then there are the ever-popular cultural explanations for poverty. This is a storyline based on confusing correlation with causation – a rookie mistake in any introductory college class.

The Heritage Foundation, for example (it's Robert Rector again), sees a lot of poor, single-parent households, and would have you believe that “the main causes of child poverty are low levels of parental work and the absence of fathers.”

But this gets the causal relationship wrong. The number of single-parent households exploded between the 1970s and the 1990s, more than doubling, yet the poverty rate remained relatively constant. In fact, before the crash of 2008, the poverty rate was lower than it had been in the 1970s. So, as the rate of single-parent households skyrocketed, poverty declined a little bit. Saying single-parent homes create poverty is like claiming the rooster causes the sun to rise.

As I've noted in the past, this is an essential piece of the “culture of poverty” narrative, and it is nonsense. Jean Hardisty, the author of Marriage as a Cure for Poverty: A Bogus Formula for Women, cited a number of studies showing that poor women have the same dreams as everyone else: they “often aspire to a romantic notion of marriage and family that features a white picket fence in the suburbs.” But low economic status leads to fewer marriages, not the other way around.

In 1998, the Fragile Families Study looked at 3,700 low-income unmarried couples in 20 U.S. cities. The authors found that 90 percent of the couples living together wanted to tie the knot, but only 15 percent had actually done so by the end of the one-year study period. And here’s the key finding: for every dollar that a man’s hourly wages increased, the odds that he’d get hitched by the end of the year rose by 5 percent. Men earning more than $25,000 during the year had twice the marriage rates of those making less than $25,000.

Writing up the findings for the Nation, Sharon Lerner noted that poverty itself “seems to make people feel less entitled to marry.” As one father in the survey put it, marriage means “not living from check to check.”

Why People Are Really Poor

During a period of less than 20 years beginning in the early 1980s, the American economy underwent dramatic changes. It was a period of policy-driven de-unionization and the offshoring of millions of decent manufacturing jobs. The tax code underwent dramatic changes, as CEO pay sky-rocketed and the financial sector came to represent a much larger share of our economic output than it had during the four decades or so following World War II.

And our distribution of income changed dramatically as well. During the 35 years prior to Ronald Reagan's election, the top one percent of U.S. households had taken in an average of 10 percent of the nation's income. When Reagan left office in 1988, those at the top were grabbing 15.5 percent of the pie, and by the time George W. Bush took office in 2000, they were taking over 20 percent of the nation's income.

We can either believe that this shift was a result of changes in public policy (combined with new technologies), or that in just two decades there was some sort of rapid cultural decline among everyone but those at the top of the economic heap.

All of the false narratives are intended to distract from the structural causes of poverty and inequality, and they ignore two simple and indisputable truths. First, contrary to popular belief, we don't all start out with the same opportunities. The reality is that in the United States today, the best predictor of a newborn baby's economic future is how much money her parents make.

It also ignores the fact that living in an individualistic, capitalist society carries inherent risk. You can do everything right – study hard, work diligently, keep your nose clean – but if you fall victim to a random workplace accident, you can nevertheless end up being disabled in the blink of an eye and find yourself in need of public assistance. You can end up bankrupt under a pile of healthcare bills or you could lose your job if you're forced to take care of an ailing parent. Children – innocents who aren't even old enough to work for themselves – are among the largest groups receiving various forms of public assistance.

The reality, despite the spin from the conservative movement, is that poverty in America is very real, and it's anything but fun.

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