Jun 30 2010

Walter E. Williams: The Poor in American are mostly only poor in spirit… and not in the Beatitude sense

Category: Uncategorizedharmonicminer @ 11:15 am

Where Best To Be Poor

Imagine you are an unborn spirit whom God has condemned to a life of poverty but has permitted to choose the nation in which to live. I’m betting that most any such condemned unborn spirit would choose the United States. Why? What has historically been defined as poverty, nationally or internationally, no longer exists in the U.S. Let’s look at it.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the 2009 poverty guideline was $22,000 for an urban four-person family. In 2009, having income less than that, 15 percent or 40 million Americans were classified as poor, but there’s something unique about those “poor” people not seen anywhere else in the world. Robert Rector, researcher at the Heritage Foundation, presents data collected from several government sources in a report titled “How Poor Are America’s Poor? Examining the ‘Plague’ of Poverty in America” (8/27/2007):

— Forty-three percent of all poor households actually own their own homes. The average home owned by persons classified as poor by the Census Bureau is a three-bedroom house with one-and-a-half baths, a garage and a porch or patio.

— Eighty percent of poor households have air conditioning. By contrast, in 1970, only 36 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.

— Only 6 percent of poor households are overcrowded; two-thirds have more than two rooms per person.

— The typical poor American has more living space than the average individual living in Paris, London, Vienna, Athens and other cities throughout Europe. (These comparisons are to the average citizens in foreign countries, not to those classified as poor.)

— Nearly three-quarters of poor households own a car; 31 percent own two or more cars.

— Ninety-seven percent of poor households have a color television; over half own two or more color televisions.

— Seventy-eight percent have a VCR or DVD player; 62 percent have cable or satellite TV reception.

— Eighty-nine percent own microwave ovens, more than half have a stereo, and a more than a third have an automatic dishwasher.

What’s defined as poverty is misleading in another way. Official poverty measures count just family’s cash income. It ignores additional sources of support such as the earned-income tax credit, which is a cash rebate to low-income workers; it ignores Medicaid, housing allowances, food stamps and other federal and local government subsidies to the poor. According to a report by American Enterprise Institute scholar Nicholas Eberstadt, titled “Poor Statistics,” “In 2006, according to the annual Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey, reported purchases by the poorest fifth of American households were more than twice as high as reported incomes.” That additional money might represent earnings from unreported employment, illegal activities and unreported financial assistance. A proper measure of well-being is what a person consumes rather than his income. A huge gap has emerged between income and consumption at lower income levels.

Material poverty can be measured relatively or absolutely. An absolute measure would consist of some minimum quantity of goods and services deemed adequate for a baseline level of survival. Achieving that level means that poverty has been eliminated. However, if poverty is defined as, say, the lowest one-fifth of the income distribution, it is impossible to eliminate poverty. Everyone’s income could double, triple and quadruple, but there will always be the lowest one-fifth.

Yesterday’s material poverty is all but gone. In all too many cases, it has been replaced by a more debilitating kind of poverty — behavioral poverty or poverty of the spirit. This kind of poverty refers to conduct and values that prevent the development of healthy families, work ethic and self-sufficiency. The absence of these values virtually guarantees pathological lifestyles that include: drug and alcohol addiction, crime, violence, incarceration, illegitimacy, single-parent households, dependency and erosion of work ethic. Poverty of the spirit is a direct result of the perverse incentives created by some of our efforts to address material poverty.

Anyone can fall temporarily on hard times. If you STAY poor for a decade, you’re probably doing something wrong, absent some radical medical condition and the like. Multi-generational poverty in the USA is almost always a values problem. If you stay out of jail, finish high school, get married, stay married, don’t make babies till you’re married, and don’t get addicted, you will eventually be able to find work if you keep looking, and the factors that keep people poor for years, decades or generations will not tend to be true for you.

The federal government has done a lot to encourage bad behavior (the kind that keeps people poor), by creating incentives for it, and literally subsidizing it.

2 Responses to “Walter E. Williams: The Poor in American are mostly only poor in spirit… and not in the Beatitude sense”

  1. innermore says:

    I enjoy Mr. Williams’ logic. But perhaps there’s a larger moral lesson here. Maybe the age-old patriotic value to “leave America richer for your children” has a limit. That is, the higher and higher the standard of living climbs as each generation achieves their goal, the more our virtuous ambition might be causing more of the bad behavior, like stress-induced addiction or greed. Or family strains due to unhealthy social pressures, i.e. both parents are forced to work 55 hours a week in order to responsibly remain above the steadily rising poverty line while their stepchildren become neglected, unconscious Wii addicts.

    As far as this relates to global poverty, your typical guilt-ridden liberal would say: How much more of the world’s resources is America going to steal to sustain its greedy unlimited, growth-in-abundance cycle? Umm, they might have a point. Our standard of living is unsustainably (therefore immorally) high, and not much of it seems to be rubbing off on our neighbors either. But instead of insulting the truths that founded this country, why not honestly ask: how do we fix an eventually unsustainable economic strategy, just as we may be arriving at that eventuality?

    Typical righty guilt response: No other country in the history of the world has volunteered and donated more to the world’s poor than America. Bravo, as would be expected from the most affluent society on the the face of the earth. But you guys just proved that throwing money and social programs at poverty hasn’t really done any good domestically. So why would you think extravagant handouts would do any better for the rest of the world? Your best solution is healthy personal morality fueling economic growth. But the problem is, what pace is internationally sustainable?

  2. l knapp says:

    fair go… but look at how the statistics that are used here tell only one part of the story… OK, so these folks have colour television… have you tried to buy a B+W TV recently? So they have cars… I would be willing to bet that they don’t own those cars, they’re on HP or in hock up to their eyeballs- and thanks to the way US cities are designed and public transport is (not) funded, having a car is an absolute necessity. You expect folks to walk everywhere? Try it yourself and see how long it’s tolerable!

    The statistics quoted do not refer to internationally- accepted determinants of poverty, such as levels of credit card debt and the percentage of income used to service debts or provide basic essentials, or the level of education attained especially by girls and women.

    In short using these statistics in this way misses the point, and is inflammatory in that it reinforces the image of poverty being the result of some moral defect.

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