How Poor are the Poor?

Relevant magazine linked to an article from the Heritage Foundation on Understanding Poverty in America. The article questions how “poor” the poor really are, and it really confuses me. I’m mainly confused as to why Relevant linked to it. Sometimes they link to stuff that’s ridiculous or funny, and sometimes they link to stuff that’s straight-up serious. I’m not sure which way they’re taking this. But I guess how they take it doesn’t matter.

Frankly, the article pisses me off. It’s basically saying that those who live in poverty in the U.S. are actually pretty well off. They basically examined the government’s standards of poverty and took a look at those who meet those standards to see how bad life in poverty really is. Their conclusion is that it’s not too bad. It doesn’t say it explicitly in the article, but it’s pretty clear from the context on the site that it’s an effort to shoot down welfare.

Now I’ll admit that looking at poverty in America is a bit ridiculous. Compared to the rest of the world, the poor in our country are pretty well off. However, that doesn’t mean we can justify ignoring the problem, which is exactly what this article seems to be saying to me.

The article looks at a number of material considerations, like whether or not most poor people have a phone, a TV or a car, if they own a home and what condition it’s in, and whether not their children are eating properly. On all of these counts the “poor” come out pretty good.

I guess I’m just a bit miffed about the article. Most poor people I know have many of these things becase it’s a way to alleviate feelings of poverty (if we have a TV, we’re just like everyone else) or it’s a neccesity (try living without a car in an area with no public transit or getting a job without a phone). But just because the have a TV doesn’t mean they’re living it up. Many poor families would probably do better without a TV.

The article also argues that many poor families get by on what amounts to 16 hours of work per week, essentially accusing the poor of laziness.

I guess what really miffs me is everything I know about the poor through my wife. She works at a daycare center serving low-income families in what amounts to inner-city St. Paul. We live a few miles from the center on what you could call the edge of the ghetto. I see poverty all the time, and my wife interacts with it on a regular basis. While many of the families at the daycare center may have a TV or a car, that doesn’t mean they’re doing OK. And in many senses those families will do “OK,” meaning they’ll survive, but they’re often stuck in a continuing cycle of poverty. It breeds crime, gangs, and drugs. Even if they do have a TV, that doesn’t justify ignoring the poverty and allowing these problems to fester.

Her center opened a food shelf last year because government cuts made it hard for families to keep food on the table. Some kids will devour every meal they’re given at school because they don’t get enough at home. For many of these families poverty is a pride issue. They’d much rather suck it up and go hungry than admit they need help.

What’s really difficult is the welfare system. Many parents rely on goverment assistance to put their children in daycare. Without daycare, they can’t work. With recent goverment cuts, that daycare assistance was cut back and the center lost many families. What happens now? Rather than trying to get a job and get back on their feet, these families are forced to stay home because they can’t afford daycare. As a result, they’re back on welfare without a chance of moving on. At least with daycare assistance they had a job.

This article also ignored other ways poverty manifests itself. For the sake of pride a poor family might have a car, a TV, a cell phone, and own their own home and keep it in reasonable condition. But they might have no savings or any funds to turn to in an emergency. They probably have no life insurance or investments of any kind. If you look around their home they may have mattresses but no frames, a stereo but no paper to do homework on, or a TV but no books to speak of. I’m just making stuff up, but there are ways of cutting back and living on a minimal income that still inable you to enjoy some of the amenities of modern life.

I guess it just makes me mad when we try to write off poverty. Try talking to a poor man. Try living in a poor neighborhood. Try going hungry — not malnourished hungry, but skimping on a meal hungry. As minimal as those sacrifices may seem in the scope of things, they’re monumental comapred with how most of us live in America.

8 thoughts on “How Poor are the Poor?”

  1. No, I don’t think that’s the point of the article. There’s never any suggestion that we should expand welfare to other nations, or try to decrease the poverty level in other nations (that I noticed). While the article doesn’t explicitly say so, the context seems to me that the Heritage Foundation is trying to dismantle welfare, and the article accomplishes that by trying to say the poor aren’t really poor, so they don’t need government assistance.

  2. I have a difficult time with welfare in general. I think it is more healthy for poor people to be fed by the Church than by the government. There used to be a time where people went to the Church for help (because the Church, Salvation Army, etc. were organizations that handled this). Then, the poor were given personal attention, teaching, spiritual nourishment as well as assistance with food, shelter, etc. I think the government running it is inefficient and overly expensive. The government also doesn’t necessarily take the time to get to know individuals and it definitely doesn’t help them in their spiritual life. The churches are also losing part of their calling to be able to help those in need. Why is it the government’s responsibility to care for the needy instead of the Church’s? I’m not saying that a person has to believe in Jesus to get help from the Church, that’s not the case. (I also say it would be detrimental to a serving ministry to make your servanthood conditional on believing in Christ). But I think we can all agree that a life with Christ and starving is better than all the riches in the world and no relationship with Christ.

  3. Kevin, I have a question for you. Sometimes I feel as though you’re contradicting yourself. You seem to be against Bush’s efforts to bring human rights to the Middle East, yet you show great concern for human rights for those living in “poverty” in the United States.

    The poor in the United States have cars, proper nutrition, and TV, and you want them to have more. On the other hand, Iraqi people get to watch their family members being tortured and dropped into plastic shredders when they question the government, and you’re saying this war isn’t a good idea, and we shouldn’t have put an immediate end to their suffering.

    It seems to me that either you support human rights everywhere no matter what the cost, or you don’t support human rights. How do you reconcile these differences?

  4. Steph, you are definately right about the government being overly expensive and inefficient. Most of the families at my school pay their tuition through government assistance (if the can prove they are looking for a job, actually working, or going to school they qualify) however, we are currently in serious debt because over half our families have outstanding tuition payments due to the fact that the government workers have not completed the paper work that allows us to get paid.

    There have also been several cuts that limit the funding going towards parents in highschool. Several of our young moms were told by their case workers that they were better off staying home and collecting welfare than trying to get their kids into daycare. How are people supposed to make a life for themselves when the support system that was put in place for them is basically telling them to give up?


  5. Not that this necessarily effects my opinions strongly…but I would be very interested to know what percentage of families that are in poverty had children (especially multiple) out of wedlock. Many of the low income families I have known are single mothers with a slew of kids, many from different fathers. What is being done to prevent people (particularly women) from getting themselves into situations that are frustrating (like the should I work & put my kids in daycare or stay home on welfare cycle)?

  6. Well Steph, you’re diving into some rather assumption-filled water there.

    I’m certainly for human rights for all people. How about the 8,000 Iraqi civilians killed in a war started on dubious grounds? At this point it becomes a numbers game — how many people did Saddam kill vs. how many people did the U.S-lead war kill? That seems like a ridiculous way to look at human rights. Arguing for war and violence as a way to improve human rights can be a pretty tough sell.

    I don’t see Bush’s efforts to bring human rights to the Middle East as the righteous crusade you see it as. Too many people have died, too many questions have been raised (from the very reason for the war to the involvement of Bush-tied interests, i.e. Haliburton), and not enough options were tried before violence was chosen as the way to go.

    If Bush really were about human rights, he would have made the case for war on those grounds (which certainly had more evidence than the whole WMD thing did) and he would have pursued a non-violent route with a bit more effort.

    Sorry to drag this out, but I think human rights for all people involves weighing all the issues, whether that’s for the poor in America who would rather buy a TV than warm clothes for their children, or the people of Iraq who faced a brutal dictator and now a bloody war and occupation. I don’t think there’s any easy answers here.

  7. Part of the poverty problem is the fact that many of the people in poverty are single moms. And from what I’ve seen the reason behind the “slew of kids” is all linked to poverty. It seems to work like this: You can’t support yourself and possibly one child, you become depressed, some guy comes along and pays attention to you, you sleep with him because it brings you out of that slump of depression. can’t afford birth control cuz you’re poor, and you end up with more kids. Or here’s another situation – depressed, turn to drugs, get high, get pregnant. Or, can’t find work, decide to work the streets, get pregnant.

    The way i see it, people who depend on welfare also need to have some type of support system in place. They need to be able to go to classes that teach them all how to responsibly use credit, how to balance a check book, how to invest money. They also need to have places where single moms can get advice on parenting (especially the teen moms) where they can get advice on how to get proper medical care. No one takes the time to do this. If all of the education went along with the welfare check I think we would be in a better place. I think people would be able to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

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