Sean King

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Knoxville, Tennessee, United States

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Problem of Defining Poverty

Slate: Adam Smith put his finger on the problem back in 1776. In The Wealth of Nations, he wrote: "A linen shirt, for example, is, strictly speaking, not a necessity of life. The Greeks and Romans lived, I suppose, very comfortably though they had no linen. But in the present times, through the greater part of Europe, a creditable day-labourer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt. ..."

And yet, any definition of poverty should require that those qualifying as such be...well...POOR. But in the US at least, that's often not the case. For instance, as Robert Rector notes:

The following are facts about persons defined as “poor” by the Census Bureau, taken from a variety of government reports:

46 percent of all poor households actually own their own homes. The average home owned by persons classified as poor by the Census Bureau is a three-bedroom house with one-and-a-half baths, a garage, and a porch or patio.

80 percent of poor households have air conditioning. By contrast, in 1970, only 36 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.

Only six percent of poor households are overcrowded; two thirds have more than two rooms per person.

The typical poor American has more living space than the average individual living in Paris, London, Vienna, Athens, and other cities throughout Europe. (These comparisons are to the average citizens in foreign countries, not to those classified as poor.)

Nearly three quarters of poor households own a car; 31 percent own two or more cars.

97 percent of poor households have a color television; over half own two or more color televisions.

78 percent have a VCR or DVD player.

62 percent have cable or satellite TV reception.

89 percent own microwave ovens, more than half have a stereo, and a more than a third have an automatic dishwasher.


It seems to me that the US's poverty statistics severely overestimate the number of truly poor people among us.

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