Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Let the poor sweat

There was this recent article in the National Review, Modern Poverty Includes A.C. and an Xbox, reporting on a Heritage Foundation report, What is Poverty. The implication was clear: the poor in the United States don't have it all that bad.

My initial inclination was not to even to address the issue. After all, it was one of those unwinnable arguments with people of a particular mindset And look at some of the items- Owning a refrigerator? Probably provided by the landlord; ditto the stove and oven. Air conditioning is a necessity in much of the country. TVs are relatively cheap form of information and entertainment. Even people in Afghanistan and sub-Saharan Africa have cell phones. And are these new items or second-hand?

But some of my data colleagues made interesting points:

One wrote: "Poverty status is about the ability of a 'family' to obtain a given standard of living based on its current flow of resources during some relatively short period, e.g. one year. Much of today's poor were not poor in the recent past, when they were able to purchase the consumer durables" measured. Interestingly, my seven-year daughter made pretty much the same observation when I was talking about this.

Another data colleague reflected on the interesting responses of who "bought stuff when employed, and now haven’t worked in years and it’s difficult to replace what they have. Where Heritage sees luxurious poor people, I see a desperately sliding middle class. And there’s no substantial research here to prove either view is right.

"Not to mention the details. If you have an air conditioner, you may not be able to afford to turn it on. Individual pay-as-you-go cell phones are encouraged for the unemployed as a help in job searches and more stable than land lines given the instability of housing for the poor... Subsidized housing often comes with washers and dryers because it takes less resources than trips to the laundromat. Go into any thrift shop in the U.S. and find used x-box systems for $10 or less as the employed trade up to a better system. And non-digital TVs for the taking."

It's clear that the writer created "a 'straw man' in selectively picking out polling data indicating that most Americans view poverty as third world style depravation. If you think that is approprate to the US, then quite right; few Americans qualify." But, by American standards, the promise of children doing better than their parents is very much in question.

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