Being Poor and Stuff

President Obama's recent re-election sent many people on the right scrambling to find explanations for an event they found unfathomable. Echoing Mitt Romney's comments about the forty-seven percent of voters who feel they are entitled to food, housing, and "you name it," Bill O'Reilly lamented on election night that too many Americans want "stuff" and "things." Romney, himself, doubled-down on his earlier comment when he explained his loss by saying that the majority of voters wanted "gifts" and believed that President Obama would deliver those gifts to them.

This is not a new theme for conservatives, and it colors they way that they think about class in America. On my blog, Ranking America, I've posted a variety of rankings dealing with poverty in the U.S. In 2009 I posted one showing that the United States had the third highest rate of poverty among thirty member nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and in 2010 I posted another showing that the U.S. had the fourth highest rate of child poverty in the OECD.

One of my more recent rankings, taken from UNICEF, shows that the U.S. has the second highest rate of child poverty among thirty-five economically advanced countries. This particular entry sparked an exchange of comments among a number of readers and was "liked" on Facebook nearly 400 times.

For their study, UNICEF defined "child poverty" as children living in households whose income was lower than 50 percent of the country's median income. It turns out that in the U.S., nearly one in four children live in such households. The question that some readers asked was whether or not the metric used by UNICEF accurately described how poverty is experienced in the U.S.

It's not uncommon to hear some people to shrug off poverty in the U.S. by saying that poor Americans just don't appreciate how good they've got it. For example, Victor Davis Hanson, has suggested that the fact that because someone who is poor may have "water that is as hot as the rich man's" and "a cell phone that is not inferior to the zillionaire's," it somehow follows that that person really can't be very poor.

Support for such arguments is found in a 2011 study by the Heritage Foundation that purports to show that poverty isn't so bad in the U.S. because the majority of poor Americans have access to stuff and things; "amenities" is the word used by the Heritage Foundation. Among these amenities are refrigerators, stoves, and ceiling fans. Apparently, the ability to prepare meals and move air around is enough to make somebody not poor.

Granted, when absolute measures are used, poverty in the United States reveals itself to be not nearly as bad as in many countries around the world. Having lived in some very poor parts of the world, I've seen desperate poverty close up. I know that some (though by no means all) people classified as poor in the U.S. would be living a middle-class existence in other countries.

Nevertheless, it strikes me as bizarre that that would be the standard we should be using. Just because Americans don't starve to death as much as people elsewhere it doesn't mean that poverty isn't a very real problem here in the U.S.

Though not a perfect measure, relative poverty is a natural and appropriate way to gauge economic hardship in this country. With the median household income in the U.S. at about $52,000 dollars per year, the measure of American poverty used by UNICEF is around $26,000 per year. That may be a lot of money by the standards of Bangladesh or South Sudan, but it's not a lot of money to raise kids with in the U.S. After paying for basic living expenses, it doesn't leave much for putting away in savings to eventually buy a house or pay for a college education -- two of the historically reliable routes out of poverty.

Opponents of relative poverty measures don't just point to internal comparisons with the wealthy or to comparisons with people living in other countries to argue for how well off the poor are here in the U.S. They also point to the past. As John Stossel put it earlier this year, "to be poor in America is to live a life better than most have lived through history."

The notion that American poverty now needs to be viewed primarily in relation to poverty elsewhere, or else the quality of life in the U.S. a hundred years ago, is silly. Yes, many poor people have access to technologies and luxuries undreamed in the past, but, so what? By that logic, every poor American today ought to be grateful that he or she wasn't fated to be John D. Rockefeller. After all, Rockefeller didn't get to drive a fancy Kia or have central air conditioning, did he?

The fact is that people live their lives in the present and they live them where they live. Failure to acknowledge this does more than just ignore the reality of poverty in the U.S. It also distorts our understanding of what it means to be citizens bound to a shared past and a common future, a future that isn't about wanting things and stuff but about wanting a more secure future for our children.