Poor Numbers

2007-08-28

I've been getting into statistics lately. Statistics showing that alarmism about terror attacks is overblown. Statistics showing that alarmism about climate change is overblown. Statistics showing that alarmism about Mexican immigration into America is overblown. And today statistics showing that alarmism about poverty in America is overblown. To wit:

The typical American defined as "poor" by the government has a car, air conditioning, a refrigera­tor, a stove, a clothes washer and dryer, and a micro­wave. He has two color televisions, cable or satellite TV reception, a VCR or DVD player, and a stereo. He is able to obtain medical care. His home is in good repair and is not overcrowded. By his own report, his family is not hungry and he had suffi­cient funds in the past year to meet his family's essential needs. While this individual's life is not opulent, it is equally far from the popular images of dire poverty conveyed by the press, liberal activists, and politicians.

But the living conditions of the average poor per­son should not be taken to mean that all poor Amer­icans live without hardship. There is a wide range of living conditions among the poor. Roughly a third of poor households do face material hardships such as overcrowding, intermittent food shortages, or difficulty obtaining medical care. However, even these households would be judged to have high liv­ing standards in comparison to most other people in the world.

Moreover, the United States can readily reduce its remaining poverty, especially among children. The main causes of child poverty in the United States are low levels of parental work, high numbers of single-parent families, and low skill levels of incoming immigrants. By increasing work and mar­riage, reducing illegal immigration, and by improv­ing the skill level of future legal immigrants, our nation can, over time, virtually eliminate remaining child poverty.

Granted, numbers can provide only generalizations. So in relation to the poverty numbers it is helpful to also envision the human reality of who we're really talking about, which philosophy professor Daniel Bonevac does in the comments to this blog post over at Reason magazine:

"The poor," by the federal definition, are such a diverse lot that it's hard to make useful generalizations. I know quite a few people who fall into that category. They include:

These people have little in common with each other. Data like the above are useful partly because they remind people that most of "the poor" don't fit their preconceptions. Before drawing any policy implications, one needs to know how many of the poor fit into which categories.

There are many individual circumstances why any given person is rich or poor, famous or unknown, happy or unhappy, healthy or unhealthy (etc.). To ignore those circumstances is to mistake preconceived notions for reality.


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal