Right-Wing Media Use Poverty Increase To Renew Charge That Poor Don't Have It So Bad

Conservative media are using the announcement that poverty increased to return to their allegation that the poor in America don't have it so bad because they own appliances. In fact, poverty affects Americans in profound ways, such as their health, education, and housing.

New Census Report Shows Increase In Number Of Americans Living In Poverty

NY Times: “Another 2.6 Million People Slipped Into Poverty In The United States Last Year.” From a New York Times article on the new Census Bureau report:

Another 2.6 million people slipped into poverty in the United States last year, the Census Bureau reported Tuesday, and the number of Americans living below the official poverty line, 46.2 million people, was the highest number in the 52 years the bureau has been publishing figures on it.

And in new signs of distress among the middle class, median household incomes fell last year to levels last seen in 1997.

Economists pointed to a telling statistic: It was the first time since the Great Depression that median household income, adjusted for inflation, had not risen over such a long period, said Lawrence Katz, an economics professor at Harvard. [The New York Times, 9/13/11]

Right-Wing Media Respond By Portraying The Poor As Facing Little Hardship

LA Times' Malcolm: Heritage Study “Paints A Dramatically Different Portrait Of Poverty In America Than The Popular Conception Of Stark Deprivation.” From a piece headlined “The Upside to Being 'Poor' in America” by LA Times columnist Andrew Malcolm:

The disappointing poverty information was widely disseminated and attributed by media to high unemployment nationally (above 9% for 25 of the last 27 months) and to the economy, which has remained stagnant despite nearly $1 trillion of government stimulus spending by the Obama-Biden administration.

Less noticed Tuesday, however, was the release of another non-government report on U.S. poverty, this one by the Heritage Foundation. It paints a dramatically different portrait of poverty in America than the popular conception of stark deprivation -- hungry people wearing rags and living in cars or boxes.

Using the same Census Bureau data, Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield looked into the actual living conditions of America's official poor.

And here are some of the startling steretype-shattering things they discovered:

During the year 4% of the poor became temporarily homeless. Forty percent live in apartments, less than 10% in mobile homes or trailers and about 50% live in standard one-family homes. In fact, 42% own their own home.


Eighty percent of poor households have air conditioning and 92% have a microwave.

One-third of poor households have a wide-screen plasma or LCD TV, 70% have a VCR and two-thirds have satellite/cable TV, the same proportion as own at least one DVD player.

Half of the povery households have a personal computer and one-in-seven have two or more.

And half of those with children have a video game system like Xbox. [The Los Angeles Times, 9/14/11]

Heritage's Rector At NRO: “A Poor Child In American Is Far More Likely To Have A Widescreen Plasma Television, Cable Or Satellite TV, A Computer And An Xbox Or Tivo In His Home Than He Is To Be Hungry.” From a post by Rector on National Review Online's The Corner:

The public generally thinks of poverty as substantial material hardship such as homelessness, or malnutrition and chronic hunger. In reality, the vast majority of those identified as poor by the annual census report did not experience significant material deprivation.

In a recent Rasmussen poll, adults agreed (by a ratio of six to one) that “a family that is adequately fed and living in a house or apartment that is in good repair” is not poor. By that simple test, about 80 percent of the Census Bureau's “poor” people would not be considered poor by their fellow Americans.

In the same Rasmussen poll, however, 73 percent said poverty was a severe problem. Why the disconnect? The answer: Public perception of poverty in the U.S. is governed by the mainstream media, which invariably depicts the Census Bureau's tens of millions of poor people as chronically hungry and malnourished, homeless or barely hanging on in overcrowded, dilapidated housing.

The strategy of the media is to take the least fortunate 3 percent or 4 percent of the poor and portray their condition as representative of most poor Americans. While we must have compassion for those who are truly homeless or without food, they are far from typical among the poor.

How do the poor live? For starters, a poor child in American is far more likely to have a widescreen plasma television, cable or satellite TV, a computer and an Xbox or TiVo in his home than he is to be hungry. [The Corner, “Strange Facts About America's Poor,” 9/13/11]

Limbaugh Cites Appliance Ownership To Describe “What It Really Means To Be Poor In America.” On his radio show, Rush Limbaugh listed the percentages of poor people who own certain appliances and amenities, according to the Heritage Foundation report. [Premiere Radio Networks, The Rush Limbaugh Show, 9/13/11]

Poverty Affects Serious Aspects Of Americans' Lives, Like Health, Education, And Housing

Yglesias: “Poverty Is Mostly About Housing, Health Care, And Education.” From a blog post by Matthew Yglesias, a fellow at the Center For American Progress Action Fund, titled “Poverty Is Mostly About Housing, Health Care, And Education”:

The Heritage Foundation is out with the latest version of its annual poor people aren't poor because electronics are cheap report:


A serious person would follow this up with a discussion of relative prices. Over the past 50 years, televisions have gotten a lot cheaper and college has gotten a lot more expensive. Consequently, even a low income person can reliably obtain a level of television-based entertainment that would blow the mind of a millionaire from 1961. At the same time, if you're looking to live in a safe neighborhood with good public schools in a metropolitan area with decent job opportunities you're going to find that this is quite expensive. Health care has become incredibly expensive. [ThinkProgress.org, 7/19/11]

Living in Poverty Worsens Health

CNN: People Living In “Extreme Poverty” Experience “More Chronic Illness, More Frequent And Severe Disease Complications.” From CNN.com:

New research indicates that it's not just the poor who are getting poorer. An analysis of poverty rates and health published in the September issue of The American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that people living in extreme poverty tend to have more chronic illnesses, more frequent and severe disease complications and make greater demands on the health care system.

“When we talk about poverty, there is the tendency to feel it affects a small percentage of the population and the rest of us are doing better,” said Steven Woolf, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of the study. But in this situation, he said, “we're all doing a little bit worse.” [CNN.com, 8/29/06]

Living in Poverty Limits Education

Johns Hopkins Education Researchers: “Poverty Is The Fundamental Driver Of Low Graduation Rates.” From a 2006 commentary published in Education Week by Robert Balfanz and Nettie Legters, researchers at Johns Hopkins University's Center for Social Organization of Schools:

We also have learned that poverty is the fundamental driver of low graduation rates. There is a near perfect linear relationship between a high school's poverty level and its tendency to lose large numbers of students between ninth and twelfth grades. In the states we have looked at in more depth, minorities are promoted to 12th grade at the same or greater rates as white youth when they attend middle class or affluent high schools in which few students live in poverty.

Relatively few minorities attend these high schools, however. Nearly half of the nation's African American and Latino students attend high schools with high poverty and low graduation rates. This is social dynamite because in modern America a good education is the only reliable path out of poverty. [Education Week, 7/16/06, (PDF here)]

Education Commission Of The States: Low-Income Students Are Less Prepared For College. From Keeping America's Promise: A Report on the Future of the Community College, a joint project of the Education Commission of the States and the League for Innovation in the Community College:

The research on postsecondary access and success clearly shows that low-income students and students of color participate in college at lower rates, are less academically prepared and thus require remedial or developmental education, are averse to student loans and unlikely to qualify for merit aid, and are less likely to persist, transfer to a four-year college, or attain a postsecondary degree.

Academic Preparation. Low-income students and students of color overwhelmingly attend secondary schools with significantly fewer resources than wealthier, predominantly White suburban schools (Frankenberg and Lee, 2002; NCES, 1998). One of the consequences of this variability of resources for primary and secondary schools is academic preparation. In 2000, only one in five high school graduates from families with income less than $25,000 was highly or very highly qualified for college based upon their secondary school curriculum compared with more than half of high school graduates from families with income greater than $75,000 (NCES, 2000). [Keeping America's Promise: A Report on the Future of the Community College, 7/04]

Living in Poverty Creates Housing Instability

HUD: “A Family With One Full-Time Worker Earning The Minimum Wage Cannot Afford The Local Fair-Market Rent For A Two-Bedroom Apartment Anywhere In The United States.” From the Department of Housing and Urban Development:

Who Needs Affordable Housing?

More people than you might realize. The economic expansion of the 1990s obscured certain trends and statistics that point to an increased, not decreased, need for affordable housing. The generally accepted definition of affordability is for a household to pay no more than 30 percent of its annual income on housing. Families who pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing are considered cost burdened and may have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care. An estimated 12 million renter and homeowner households now pay more then 50 percent of their annual incomes for housing, and a family with one full-time worker earning the minimum wage cannot afford the local fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the United States. The lack of affordable housing is a significant hardship for low-income households preventing them from meeting their other basic needs, such as nutrition and healthcare, or saving for their future and that of their families. [HUD.gov, accessed 7/21/11]

Urban Institute: 2008 Data “Suggest That Many Low-Income Working Families Are Likely To Have Trouble Paying The Rent And Meeting Their Mortgages.” From a Q&A with the Urban Institute's Gregory Acs and Margery Austin Turner:

A family can afford to pay about 30 percent of its income on housing, according to widely accepted standards. Data released today [August 26, 2008] on the incomes of U.S. families in 2007 suggest that many low-income working families are likely to have trouble paying the rent and meeting their mortgages.

A family of four (two adults and two children) living at 2007's poverty line ($21,027) can afford $526 a month in rent -- far less than fair-market rents for a two-bedroom apartment in most metropolitan areas. Indeed, this family would have to spend 34 percent of its income to rent in Mobile, Alabama; 45 percent in Phoenix, Arizona; 53 percent in Chicago, Illinois; and 68 percent in New York City, New York. [Urban Institute, accessed 7/21/11]

Living in Poverty Limits Access to Healthy Food, Is Linked to Obesity

Community Health Experts Bell And Standish: “Like The Inability To Obtain Fresh Foods, Obesity And Related Health Problems ... Disproportionately Affect Low-Income People.” From an article in Community Development Investment Review, a publication of the San Francisco Federal Reserve, by Judith Bell, president of PolicyLink, and Marion Standish, director of community health for the California Endowment:

Limited access to fresh foods primarily affects inner-city communities, rural areas, and some older suburbs and is felt most acutely in low-income communities and communities of color. A 2009 study found that 23.5 million people in low-income communities have no supermarket or large grocery store within a mile of their homes. In California, lower-income communities have 20 percent fewer healthy food sources than higher-income ones. In Albany, New York, 80 percent of nonwhite residents live in neighborhoods where one cannot find low-fat milk or high-fiber bread, a staple in any middle-class community.


Like the inability to obtain fresh foods, obesity and related health problems such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease disproportionately affect low-income people and people of color. African American and Mexican American children are nearly twice as likely as white children to be obese. Children from poor families are twice as likely to be overweight as those from higher-income families. Ten-year-old Latino girls have a lifetime diabetes risk of 53 percent and African American girls have a 49 percent risk, while white girls have a lifetime risk of 31 percent. The racial risk profile is similar among boys. [Community Development Investment Review, Volume 5, Issue 3, 2009, accessed 7/22/11]

Living in Poverty Limits Access to Legal Services

Legal Services Corp.: “There Continues To Be A Major Gap Between The Civil Legal Needs Of Low-Income People And The Legal Help That They Receive.” From Documenting the Justice Gap in America, a 2009 report published by the Legal Services Corporation, a private nonprofit organization created by Congress that “promotes equal access to justice and provides grants for high-quality civil legal assistance to low-income Americans”:

This report updates the 2005 Justice Gap Report, using new data. Analysis of this data confirms that the conclusion of the 2005 Justice Gap Report remains valid: there continues to be a major gap between the civil legal needs of low-income people and the legal help that they receive.

  • Data collected in the spring of 2009 show that for every client served by an LSC-funded program, one person who seeks help is turned down because of insufficient resources.
  • New state legal needs studies have added depth to a body of social science knowledge that has produced consistent findings for a decade and a half, documenting that only a small fraction of the legal problems experienced by low-income people (less than one in five) are addressed with the assistance of either a private attorney (pro bono or paid) or a legal aid lawyer.
  • Analysis of the most recent available figures on attorney employment shows that nationally, on the average, only one legal aid attorney is available for every 6,415 low-income people. By comparison, there is one private attorney providing personal legal services (those meeting the legal needs of private individuals and families) for every 429 people in the general population who are above the LSC poverty threshold.
  • New data indicate that state courts, especially those courts that deal with issues affecting low-income people, in particular lower state courts and such specialized courts as housing and family courts, are facing significantly increased numbers of unrepresented litigants. Studies show that the vast majority of people who appear without representation are unable to afford an attorney, and a large percentage of them are low-income people who qualify for legal aid. A growing body of research indicates that outcomes for unrepresented litigants are often less favorable than those for represented litigants. [Legal Services Corporation, Documenting the Justice Gap in America, 9/09]

Grim Poverty Numbers Would Be Worse Without Federal Aid Programs

CBPP: “The Data Also Show That Many Of These Grim Figures And The Level Of Hardship Would Have Been Much Worse If Not For Key Federal Programs Such As Unemployment Insurance, The Earned Income Tax Credit, Food Stamps, And Medicaid.” From a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities statement on the new Census report:

Today's Census report shows that in 2010, the share of all Americans and the share of children living in poverty, the number and share of people living in “deep poverty,” and the number without health insurance all reached their highest level in many years -- in some cases, in several decades -- while median household income fell significantly after adjusting for inflation. The data also show that many of these grim figures and the level of hardship would have been much worse if not for key federal programs such as unemployment insurance, the Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps, and Medicaid. Without unemployment insurance, for instance, 3.2 million more Americans would have fallen into poverty, Census said. All of that raises the stakes for the decisions that President Obama and Congress will make in coming months about whether to extend initiatives that were designed to address hardship during the recession, as well as whether to abide by a principle that the Bowles-Simpson commission report established that deficit-reduction plans should not increase poverty and thus should shield basic low-income assistance programs. [Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “Statement: Robert Greenstein, President, on Census' 2010 Poverty, Income, and Health Insurance Data,” 9/13/2011]