I have been reading a rather lengthy report on poverty in America written by Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield of the Heritage Foundation. The Full and lengthy report is here: What is Poverty in America Today? I am going to present some excerpts here.
The authors use substantial data from the Census Bureau and the Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS) of the Department of Energy to paint a portrait of poverty in America.
Their data suggests to me that we ought to consider distinguishing three basic categories when it comes to understanding our obligations to those with less: the impoverished, the poor, and the needy.
First there is the category of the impoverished, those living in deep poverty. Let me begin by quoting from the report:
Each year for the past two decades, the U.S. Census Bureau has reported that over 30 million Americans were living in “poverty.” In recent years, the Census has reported that one in seven Americans are poor. But what does it mean to be “poor” in America? How poor are America’s poor?
For most Americans, the word “poverty” suggests destitution: an inability to provide a family with nutritious food, clothing, and reasonable shelter. For example, the Poverty Pulse poll taken by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development asked the general public: “How would you describe being poor in the U.S.?” The overwhelming majority of responses focused on homelessness, hunger or not being able to eat properly, and not being able to meet basic needs.
Yet if poverty means lacking nutritious food, adequate warm housing, and clothing for a family, relatively few of the more than 30 million people identified as being “in poverty” by the Census Bureau could be characterized as poor. While material hardship definitely exists in the United States, it is restricted in scope and severity. The average poor person, as defined by the government, has a living standard far higher than the public imagines.
[Only] a small minority are homeless.
To a family that has lost its home and is living in a homeless shelter, the fact that only 0.5 percent of families shared this experience in 2009 is no comfort. The distress and fear for the future that the family experiences are real and devastating. Public policy must deal with that distress. However, accurate information about the extent and severity of social problems is imperative for the development of effective public policy.
Hence, it would seem that those we call impoverished, those who live in poverty, are those who do not have the capacity for even the basic essentials such as shelter, clothes, food and water. Largely this is the homeless population this country and they exist in true poverty.
The report goes on the to distinguish the second tier of the less fortunate who I would call the poor. Here we see those who are not homeless, they do have food and many basic amenities, but they are in a financially fragile condition. Decades ago we would often refer to these as the working poor. However, in the age of welfare a significant number of the poor do not work, and hence that distinction not longer fully applies. Among the poor there is a both a range and a variability. The report begins with the poor in the most fragile state and says,
[T]here is a range of living conditions within the poverty population. The average poor family does not represent every poor family.
Fortunately, the number of homeless Americans has not increased during the current recession. Although most poor families are well fed and have a fairly stable food supply, a sizeable minority experiences temporary restraints in food supply at various times during the year. The number of families experiencing such temporary food shortages has increased somewhat during the current economic downturn.
Thus, among the poor are those who remain at risk of impoverishment due to lack of food and basic essentials. Perhaps this is seasonally due to fact that some jobs have seasonal qualities. Some also have illness like asthma, which are affected by the season. Perhaps too the vulnerability is due less to seasons than to the economy. In a downturn in the economy like we are experiencing their working hours are cut, or their job eliminated. Other family factors such as the health of family members or various crises make the poor at the lower end edge more toward permanent, temporary or seasonal impoverishment and make them vulnerable to true destitution.
But among the poor are those who do not range toward the bottom, near destitution. They may be stably poor in the sense that their income is below the Federal Poverty line, but in no way are they destitute. Here is where the report makes some findings that some may find controversial, but they seem well backed up by extensive data. The report says,
The federal government conducts several other surveys that provide detailed information on the living conditions of the poor. These surveys provide a very different sense of American poverty. They reveal that the actual standard of living among America’s poor is far higher than the public imagines and that, in fact, most of the persons whom the government defines as “in poverty” are not poor in any ordinary sense of the term.
The Chart below shows information for 2005 for poor U.S. households (those with cash incomes below the official poverty thresholds). While poor households were slightly less likely to have conveniences than the general population, most poor households had a wide range of amenities. As Chart 2 shows, 78 percent of poor households had air conditioning, 64 percent had cable or satellite TV, and 38 percent had a personal computer.
Hence it is clear that those beneath the poverty line are not always lacking in a number of significant conveniences and comforts. The numbers are based on the aforementioned Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS) published each year by the US Department of Energy. Toward the bottom of the list the lack of Internet access is of significance, since it is an important way of connect with the wider world and thus a help up and out of poverty if well used. But, other things being equal, being poor in America is nothing like the like the utter destitution Americans often see in other parts of the world, even close at hand in the Caribbean Islands. In such places the poor often live literally in cardboard boxes and shanties with no running water, electricity or plumbing. In is clear that most of the poor in America are impoverished,are not destitute. Many are vulnerable as stated above, but not in true poverty as I have suggested is a term that should be used for the truly destitute.
A further feature in the report is the encouraging note that we have made progress in ensuring that the poor live in better conditions. While it is often held that the War on Poverty has done nothing to push back the poverty level (still at 30%), that may not be entirely true. As we have seen, the Federal Government defines a certain level of income to indicate whether one is poor or not. But income is not the whole story. Frankly the poor live in better conditions today than they used to as seen in the chart above. Frankly we ALL live better than we used to, and the poor are no exception. The report says,
[There has been] Improvement in Poor Households over Time. Because the RECS has reported on the living conditions of the poor for several decades, it is a useful tool for charting the improvement in living conditions among the poor over time. For example, the chart at right shows the percentage of all households and the percentage of poor households that had any type of air conditioning between 1970 and 2005. Although poor households were less likely to have air conditioning in any given year, the share of households with air conditioning increased steadily for both groups over the 25-year period. By 2005, the two rates converged as air conditioning became nearly universal in U.S. society.
Another example is the share of all households and the share of poor households that had a personal computer from 1990 to 2005. Personal computers were rare in 1990 but spread widely through society over the next 15 years. Computer ownership among the poor increased substantially during the period. In 1990, only 5 percent of poor households had a computer. By 2005, the number had risen to almost 40 percent.
I will say that living among the poor for almost seven years and continuing to advocate for them even now has brought me into many a Public Housing Development. And although the amenities listed above were in evidence the living conditions were poorly affected by dilapidated housing and poorly maintained housing units. Much of this is caused however by the social conditions existent in those projects. I recall working hard for a particular housing development in Southeast Washington to be renovated which it was, in 2001. By 2007 when I left the neighborhood it was boarded up and vacant once again.
The usual scenario is that a small percentage of residents become junkies, (it only takes a few). Then they get desperate for money to buy drugs or pay off a drug dealer. So they begin to strip out the appliances and plumbing in their apartment, and sell them for drug money. The damage spreads through the building since they wreck the plumbing, cause leaks and water leaks to the floors below before building maintenance has time to shut it off. Next comes mildew and electrical problems. This leads to further vacancies. As a building begins to go vacant, vacant apartments are perfect targets for more desperate vandals. Once the process starts, a building can go from filled to vacant and derelict in six months.
This is not the case in every public housing unit, just the worst ones. In this case the report issues a surprising finding, that to some extent does not comport with my experience:
Of course, the typical poor family could have a host of modern conveniences and still live in dilapidated, overcrowded housing. However, data from other government surveys show that this is not the case. Poor Americans are well housed and rarely overcrowded. In fact, the houses and apartments of America’s poor are quite spacious by international standards. The typical poor American has considerably more living space than does the average European.
Forty-three percent of all poor households 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.
Nearly all of the houses and apartments of the poor are in good condition. According to the government’s data, only one in 10 has moderate physical problems. Only 2 percent of poor domiciles have “severe” physical problems, the most common of which is sharing a bathroom with another household living in the building.
Well, not so sure the conditions I saw were that pleasant but I did live among the poorest of the poor deep in the Government Housing Projects, usually poorly run and maintained.
The final category I would list but cannot develop here now is the category of the needy. The needy may have no financial concerns at all. Their needs may center more around spiritual, emotional and psychological things. Further, perhaps due to age or handicap they may need physical assistance. Young children surely need teaching. Troubled teenagers need counseling and mentoring. Alcoholics need support groups and assistance to remain sober, and so forth. This category has little to do with money, food or shelter, but it can be related to it.
In the end, I suggest a threefold distinction as stated above: the impoverished, the poor, and the needy. Surely the truly impoverished need out immediate and on-going help to provide their basic need. The poor too need support, for many of them are financially vulnerable without some assistance to lend stability to their lives. The needy have various concerns that we ought to be personally willing to address as well.
But poverty, and being poor and needy in America is less monolithic than most assume and coming to see the complexity can help us target our resources more effectively.
We have obligations to the needy, the poor and the destitute, but it also helps to see that there is a range to the problem. Further, we actually have made some progress, if we look deeper into the data. The graph at the top of this page shows the steep decline in the Black poverty rate from 1966 to now. The strong emergence of the Black Middle Class is a hidden secret of this land.
Progress HAS been made – There is work to do, but simply saying that the poverty rate in this land has never budged from 30% may not be an accurate picture, for how the poor live and what it really means to be poor in America are poorly understood by most Americans. Progress has been made.
This Video presents some of the startling realities of destitution in a country not far from our own shores. Many parishes here in Washington have sister parishes in Haiti: