Jason Lewis: Give us your poor -- if you can find them

  • Article by: JASON LEWIS
  • Updated: September 15, 2007 - 4:30 PM

Dig into the numbers, and poverty doesn't look as bad as the gloomier among us say it is.

For those tortured souls so invested in defeat and pessimism, the Census Bureau's report on poverty is little more than an annual exercise in pointing out the horrible deficiencies of American capitalism. Never mind that we now have a record number of Americans with health insurance; the doom-and-gloomers focus on those without it -- even though most of them live in households with incomes above $50,000 a year or are eligible for government health programs but not enrolled.

Disregard for a moment that median household income, adjusted for inflation, rose again in 2006, to $48,451 nationwide. Here in the Twin Cities, the supposed epicenter of poverty in Minnesota, it stood at $62,223. Not surprisingly, then, the August figures show the first significant drop in poverty in a decade, with the "official" rate declining from 12.6 percent in 2005 to 12.3 percent.

Since the federal tax cuts of 2003, the economy has added $1.3 trillion in real output, growing more than 3 percent annually, according to Investors Business Daily. Business spending is way up, adding 8 million new jobs, and real labor compensation per hour has rebounded, with wages advancing 3.9 percent from a year ago. Even with a slight decline in job creation in August, the nation's unemployment rate remained in record low territory at 4.6 percent. Oh, and yes, even the volatile Dow Jones has regained its lost ground from the bursting of the high-tech bubble and from 9/11 -- and then some.

But, alas, liberals need a crisis. An exaggerated view of poverty in America works just fine, thank you -- especially if you're trying to raise taxes. So when John Edwards isn't getting $400 haircuts (or was that Bill Clinton?) or strolling around his mansion, the born-again populist is usually talking about "two Americas," suggesting that some 37 million of our fellow citizens are struggling with "incredible poverty." But have you ever wondered how such rampant starvation can exist in the midst of a nationwide obesity crisis?

Well, as Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation points out, it doesn't. If you look at the living conditions of those folks the government defines as impoverished, you'll discover that America's poor lead far better lives than do many middle-class citizens overseas. To wit:

• 46 percent of all poor households in America actually own their homes.

• Most own a car, and 31 percent of poor households own two or more.

• 78 percent have a DVD or VCR player; 62 percent have cable or satellite television.

• One third of poor households have both cell and landline telephones.

• And 80 percent have air conditioning -- significant, since as recently as 1970 only 36 percent of all American households had it.

Indeed, if you measure consumption (and assets) as opposed to only cash income, you get an entirely different picture of poverty in the United States. Far from being malnourished, 89 percent of poor families, as Rector explains, say they have "enough" food to eat, while 2 percent say they do not.

Which isn't to say there aren't serious problems for those living below the poverty line. However, since 1964 this nation has devoted more than $6.5 trillion toward "Great Society" programs, and the poverty rate hasn't fallen any faster than it did in the 1950s and early '60s. Which is to say that the modern welfare state has been successful in sustaining a permanent underclass, but has done little to move it toward self-sufficiency.

Furthermore, since the Census Bureau figures don't include the value of noncash government benefits, such as food stamps, housing subsidies, Medicaid or even the Earned Income Tax Credit, the data suggest a far wider gap in lifestyles between John Edwards and middle America than between poor and average households.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with getting wealthy. Before the politics of envy became the sine qua non of liberal Democrats, John Kennedy was talking about a rising tide lifting all boats -- even the rich ones. Yet even after eight years of Clinton-Gore policy, the income share of the richest 1 percent rose to a post-World War II high of 20.8 percent in 2000, according to the Tax Foundation. Today, what it takes to be a member of the leisure class is slightly higher, but the group's overall share of income isn't, suggesting there's more to solving the problems of the underclass than raising taxes on the wealthy.

Then again, the pessimist can always hope for a recession, or better yet, a depression. Because that's when the so-called income gap really shrinks, as the well-to-do lose much more than the downtrodden -- though both lose. But that, unfortunately, tends to be a bit of hard sell on the campaign trail.

Jason Lewis hosts a weekday talk show from 4 to 7 p.m. on KTLK Radio (100.3 FM).

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