Who is Poor?

Here are some things every American needs: decent shelter, adequate healthy food, adequate clothing, high quality education, adequate health care, available transportation, adequately paid work, safety from violence, clean air and water…

Nobody needs a late model car or a plasma TV, or a motorboat, or any of the other expensive toys that middle class Americans amuse themselves with. But I saw in a recent Heritage Foundation article lambasting the eminently lambastable John Edwards that the poor aren’t really poor, because they have things like cars, washing machines, TV, and X-Box games. Their large homes are in good repair. They have everything they could want and more, and all these things are readily verifiable by government figures, although the article failed to mention where. These things, along with all the very generous benefits the poor receive from the government move a family with a $23,000 income, poverty level maximum for a family of four, to a family with $40,000-$50,000 income, the article said, so why should they ever want to be anything but poor?

Oh, really? Let’s figure that out, because I’m a bit suspicious when I hear numbers as unlikely as that. Start with a car and all the wonderful appliances that the poor can afford. Now, a congressional representative, on his annual salary of $174,000, complete with free health care coverage and other bennies, can afford a $40,000 car every year, if he wishes. What kind of new car can the poor afford? Well, they can’t. They buy used cars, often ones that sell for as little as $500, and they drive them until they die. And most people need a car to get to work and to shop for food, at minimum. How about a nice 32-inch flat screen TV? Well, that will set you back $300 new, if you can’t find a better deal. Washer and dryer: Whew! That’ll cost you $1000 for a cheap set. Better try Craig’s List: Much better. You can get used large appliances for $200 or even less. X-box: $50.

Big bucks, these. Let’s overestimate the total cost and call it $3000, but let’s also remember that you don’t have to buy these things every year. That’s $1000 a year. Somehow, this doesn’t sound like living in the lap of luxury to me. Even so, Heritage is right that having stuff like this is not quite the same as living in a grass hut. Let’s not think about the unaffordable health care insurance at $10,000-$20,000, and the unattainable continuous savings of at least that amount that would be needed for a comfortable retirement. Leaving aside such “minor” expenses, is this real poverty?

We witnessed real poverty on a visit to Thailand some years ago. Thailand is a magical place, with amazing things to see, wonderful people, great food. But, like many countries, there are the poor. Thousands upon thousands of them. What does being poor mean in Thailand?

A train track runs alongside the highway from the airport into Bangkok. There are perhaps ten feet of real estate between the tracks and the highway. For miles and miles, every square foot of this space is filled with the shacks of families who live there, with the constant company of trains on one side, and the busy highway on the other. You can see desperate poverty like this in virtually any third world country you visit. This is poverty of the worst sort.

American poverty is not like that, nor should it be. The US is the richest country the world has ever seen. How is it then that there are so many people who fail to receive the minimum benefit of what the country has to offer? Surely, a significant part of the answer is that honest work is not fairly compensated. I reject the common conservative accusation that the poor are poor because they refuse to work. That’s racism, pure and simple, and it’s not true.

No matter what our prejudices say, there are far too many people who don’t have enough to eat in this country, and this should not be. Clothing is not so hard to come by, but even in our rich country, there are far too many people who live in housing that is substandard, unhealthy, and often dangerous. Habitat for Humanity estimates that there are 5.4-million substandard homes in the US. Habitat donations, volunteer labor, and most importantly, a great deal of sweat equity from the prospective owner, replace these old wrecks one by one. It shouldn’t surprise you to know that the poor who are able to work are very happy to work hard for many months, and are often overwhelmed by happiness when they move into their new home: modest, but sound, comfortable, and safe.

These are not the lazy brown people that conservative Republicans so often portray, ripping off the system so they can loaf on the public’s dime. They are all colors. Regardless of skin color, all the Habitat recipients work very hard for a long time to break out of their substandard home trap, often while also working a full time job at the same time.

There is a kernel of truth to some assertions in the Heritage article. If you are able to work full time and to take advantage of benefits because of low income, your life may be improved. But improved so that your “real” income is the equivalent of a $50,000 income? I see you chuckling at the very thought in your new Habitat home.

The plain and simple fact is, there is indeed poverty in America. There always was. It would be much better if we didn’t have to spend money on the poor, but the direction toward achieving this goal is to establish social conditions that allow every American a decent life. Decent pay for decent work would help a lot, but it won’t help those who are unable to work. Until things improve, it’s a pretty good idea for us to take the hard edge off being poor, and put aside the lie that poor people are simply people of color who are too lazy to work.

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