Air-Conditioned Poverty A Right-Wing Diversion

Isaiah J. Poole

The Census Bureau reports that the percentage of people living in poverty in the U.S. is at its highest level in almost two decades. But not to worry, says the conservative Heritage Foundation: Poor people are doing just fine:

Few of the 46.2 million people identified by the Census Bureau as being “in poverty” are what most Americans would consider poor—lacking nutritious food, adequate warm housing, or clothing. The typical “poor” American lives in an air-conditioned house or apartment and has cable TV, a car, multiple color TVs, a DVD player, and a VCR among other conveniences.

Heritage has trotted out this line before to give right-wing lawmakers in Congress ammunition to support cuts in programs that help struggling families cope and eventually become financially self-supporting.

Heritage’s formula for fighting poverty, by the way: Poor people should get a job and get married. More on that, and the conservative war in Congress against jobs and marriage, in a moment. But first, let’s look at the poverty numbers, and the reality of poverty today in America.

Economists Heidi Shierholz and Elise Gould at the Economic Policy Institute have highlighted key numbers from the poverty report. They include:

  • 15.1%: The share of the population in poverty in 2010
  • 22.0%: The percent of children under 18 in poverty
  • 46.2 million: The number of people in poverty in 2010
  • 11.3%, 6.6%, 4.5%: The decline in family income between 2007 and 2010 for the bottom 20 percent, middle 20 percent, and the top 20 percent, respectively
  • $6,298: The decline in median working-age household income from 2000 to 2010
  • 49.1 million: The number of people under 65 without any health insurance

In addition, 6.7 percent of the population is now in “deep poverty,” living below 50 percent of the poverty line. That includes almost 10 percent of the nation’s children.

What’s worse, Shierholz said in a briefing today, is that “there is no relief in sight.” Because unemployment is projected to remain abnormally high because of slow economic growth for at least the next two years without extraordinary action to jump-start the economy, “we cannot expect an improvement and poverty numbers for awhile.”

The bottom line: Even with the admitted income losses experienced by the wealthiest Americans, the truth is that working-class and middle-class Americans are continuing to fall behind, and the gap between the Main Street economy and the rarefied world of millionaires and billionaires is continuing to widen.

“In relative terms, we are seeing an impoverishment of millions of people,” Shierholz said.

Poverty rates would have been far worse had it not been for the Recovery Act in 2009, which according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities kept 4.5 million people from falling below the poverty line. Shierholz today said that now that the Recovery Act money has been largely spent, “the end of [the Recovery Act] is a substantial drag on growth and income.”

Today’s poverty numbers bolster the case for dramatic government intervention to jump-start the economy. No wonder the Heritage Foundation rushed out its rehashed distraction about air-conditioned poverty.

Melissa Boteach of the Half in Ten anti-poverty campaign posted a solid response to these Heritage distortions in August. “These arguments are mean and misleading on several accounts,” she writes. For example, subsidized housing is required to have air conditioning, and for one simple reason: The alternative is to have more people die of heat-related illnesses.

The truth is that the amenities that Heritage cites are usually items that came with the residence they are living in, were acquired before they fell into poverty, or are second-hand. They are not evidence that poor people are living high off the federal dole.

Besides, Half in 10 notes, a low-income family of four could sell all of their appliances—the television, the tape player, the game system for the children, the air conditioner, the refrigerator, the telephone, and just about everything else that has an electrical cord—and that poor family would still not be able to raise enough money to cover three months’ rent. And they’d end up even less able to pull themselves out of poverty. (Can you email me your resume? Kinda hard; I just sold the computer. Can I call you for a job interview? Can’t. Just got rid of the cell phone.)

Heritage’s answer to America’s increasing poverty is to declare that “the War on Poverty has been a colossal failure” and to argue that poor people have been debilitated by it. “In many low-income communities, the work ethic has eroded and marriage has collapsed,” its report says.

Actually, the thousands of people who showed up at the Speakout for Good Jobs Now events in struggling communities this summer, and the thousands who show up for job openings when they are available (such as this one in Atlanta last month), are a testament to the fact that among poor people the work ethic is alive and well. It’s the work that’s eroded, not the work ethic.

As for the lie that low-income people are less interested in marriage than middle-class and wealthy people, consider this: With unemployment among African-American men at 18 percent in August, significantly higher than the 13.4 percent unemployment rate among black women and nearly three times that of white men, it is no wonder that women see no advantage in tying their fates to a mate who has few if any economic prospects. (Last year writer Valerie Valbrun, a frequent contributor to The Root, took on Heritage’s reasoning, as does this 2002 paper by scholars Stephanie Coontz Nancy Folbre.)

Fix the jobs problem in low-income communities through such measures as those advocated today by the House Progressive Caucus, which today unveiled its “Rebuild the American Dream Framework,” and poverty rates decline, marriage becomes a more attractive option for families, young people see the value of a strong work ethic and dysfunctional communities begin to heal themselves.

Conservatives in Congress, though, are opposing the very jobs measures that are needed to lift people out of poverty, choosing instead to defend the tax breaks of corporations and billionaires who have done nothing to address the jobs crisis with those tax breaks. Their response to today’s poverty report underscores the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of their ideas.

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