Commentary: Poverty in the USA

The conservative Heritage Foundation recently released a reporting documenting poverty in America. The report notes that many who are defined as poor by the government have many items that would have been considered luxuries only a few decades ago, such as multiple TVs, video game consoles, and central air-conditioning. In addition, “the typical poor American had more living space than the average European.” The report also documents how poor children in America  “grow up to be, on average, one inch taller and 10 pounds heavier than the GIs who stormed the beaches of Normandy in World War II.”

Predictably this report has been trumpeted by the conservative media as proof that the plight of the poor has been overstated while the left has criticized it for minimizing the effect of poverty. Courtland Milloy of the Washington Post has written a piece mockingly titled: “Study Dismisses Poverty, But Try Telling That to the Poor.”

But the attitude of Mr. Milloy and others like him misses the point of the issue of poverty in this country. Poverty should not be matter of subjectivity or relativity. Whether some people can afford luxuries that others cannot is not the issue that concerns society. Instead we should focus on making sure that people have the means to support themselves under an acceptable standard of living. It means reforming education so that quality K-12 education is available for all regardless of whether one lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan or the South Side of Chicago. It’s about opportunities and basic needs, not antipathy towards those who are well off.

Just because someone is poor doesn’t mean they are lazy or stupid. There are many who have suffered from circumstances beyond their control and need some help to get on their feet.  But to be blunt, people should not be entitled to have nice things just because other people do. Beyond the basics people should have to work for the money to afford luxuries. Despite our nation’s addiction to technology, cable TV is a luxury. An Xbox is a luxury. A smart phone is a luxury. These are nobody’s birthright but instead they must be earned.

Now does that mean that poor people can’t have nice things? Of course not. I don’t think having a car or refrigerator disqualifies someone from receiving assistance. But it’s perfectly reasonable for people to question the wisdom of giving assistance to someone who pays hundreds of dollars for the latest iPhone while claiming to live paycheck to paycheck.

The crux of this report is that there are some who are classified as poor who are not in need of a whole lot of assistance. Subsidizing the purchasing of luxuries not only hurts the tax payer but also the truly impoverished because it is they who suffer needlessly when programs are cut for budgetary reasons. Every tax dollar that goes towards helping someone buy a PS3 or plasma TV is one less dollar towards helping someone get food on their table. It’s one less dollar towards improving schools or providing medical care. And it’s an insult to both the people who earned that money and to those who truly need help.

Posted By Max Viscio

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