I grew up poor—at least by American standards. But later in life I had occasion to visit parts of the world that changed my whole perspective on poverty. By the standards of some countries, the poverty of my youth would be classified as wealth. There were a lot of times in my younger years when I wasn’t sure where the next meal would come from but in most cases—thanks to churches, friends, and neighbors—the next meal did usually come. But I have been to countries where starving people have stopped worrying about the next meal and instead wonder if they will ever eat again. Many won’t. This is why I am convinced we need to rethink what we call poverty in America.
Liberals are fond of attacking the wealthy in America—the so-called top one percent. What they never say is that people who live below the government established poverty line in America would be considered wealthy in many parts of the world. Consider these facts. The average household income in America is approximately $50,000 per year. In America this is not a lot of money, but throughout the rest of the world it represents a fortune. In fact, if your annual household income is just $34,000 you are in the top one-percent globally. If you are at the government established poverty level of $14,000, you are in the top 12 percent of income earners on the global stage.
My experiences in settings where poverty amounted to living in shanties with no running water, no electricity, and no food changed my perspective concerning what it means to be poor. What is does not mean is mere discomfort or having comparatively less materially than others. Seeing the depredations of real, abject poverty seared into my soul a deep and abiding interest in the concept. In my earlier 20s, I came to understand that there is the state of being poor—as we view it in America—and the state of living in poverty—real poverty. The two concepts are not the same. On one hand, there are people in America who really do live in poverty. But on the other hand many of those who are classified as poor in America are poor only in that they don’t have as much in the way of material wealth as they would like to have. Few of the poor in America are actually missing meals and wanting for fresh drinking water. If you would like to test this statement for veracity, ask yourself why so many of living in so-called poverty in America are obese. Obese people are not missing many meals.
In spite of what has been wrought by the destructive statist economic policies of liberal politicians, America is still a land of prosperity and wealth when compared with other nations of the world. Consequently, we have come to accept a liberal definition of what constitutes poverty. In other words, our material wealth has shifted the bar of expectations so high that people living solely on government assistance today would have been considered well off by the Okies of America’s Great Depression. They are considered well off by truly poor people in other nations, which is why so many illegal immigrants flood across our borders every day.
Writing on this subject in TOWNHALL (December 2014), Kevin Glass commented: “…it’s important to talk about what we mean by poverty in the modern day. With modern amenities like computers, microwaves, cell phones, refrigeration, and more, it’s difficult to argue that the Americans living in poverty today are worse off than in the past.” Actually, this is a bit of an understatement. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, poor households in America enjoy the following amenities: microwave oven (92.3%), air conditioner (81.6%), car or truck (74.1%), VCR (70.6%), DVD player (64.5%), cable or satellite TV (63.7%), video game system (53.9%), personal computer (50.2%), Internet service (42.6%), dishwasher (39.7%), non-portable stereo (34.3%), big screen plasma or LCD television (33.7%), two or more cars or trucks (30.6%), digital video recorder (23.1%), and two or more computers (15.9%). What is missing from this list is youngsters from poor families who wear $150 Michael Jordon basketball shoes.
I have tried to compare the amenities of modern day poverty to what I had growing up, but found it difficult because some of the household gadgets, devices, and appliances available today were not even invented at the time. However, there are enough amenities in the houses of today’s “poor” families to allow for a few instructive comparisons. For example, when I was a youngster we had no air conditioning—nor did most of the better off families I knew. We had one car—a 15 year-old wreck that was held together by bubble-gum and electrician’s tape. We had a black and white TV we picked up in someone’s trash pile in a better neighborhood. To get even a semblance of reception, we had to fashion a set of rabbit ears out of coat hangers and cover them with tin foil. Even with this innovation, two snowy channels was the best we could manage (of course there were only three channels available in those days). However, there was one area in which we could match the amenities of the modern poor: we had a dishwasher—me. I washed, dried, and stacked the family’s dishes after every meal; a task that never took long because we had so few dishes.
My question for Americans is this: Is what we now call poverty really poverty or have we become so entitled that we no longer even recognize what it means to be poor? A hard truth is that Lyndon’s Johnson’s war on poverty has been waged for 50 years now by a federal government that has spent trillions of dollars with no discernible decrease in what passes for poverty in America. In fact, by both raw numbers and percentages the number of people living in poverty in America has increased since the years prior to the onset of Johnson’s war on poverty. An objective observer might easily conclude that the only thing the war on poverty has changed is the definition of poverty. A smart observer will realize that government assistance just perpetuates poverty.
Poverty is no longer about starvation, being without a roof over one’s head, or having insufficient clothing. Rather, poverty now seems to have evolved into a game liberals play to keep an increasing number of people sufficiently dependent on government handouts to ensure they comprise a solid voting base. This alone would explain why the federal government continues to spend billions on so-called anti-poverty programs when the more they spend, the more people we have living in poverty. Increasing the poverty rolls has become the goal of liberals, not reducing poverty.
The war on poverty, rather than alleviating privation, has turned poverty into a lifestyle that is sufficiently comfortable that it has robbed poor people of the initiative and drive necessary to work their way out of poverty. Ironically, it has become a lifestyle that is too comfortable to leave but not comfortable enough to eliminate the desire for more. This is why so many people living off of government handouts engage in illegal, off-the-books, cash-based enterprises. They use government handouts to provide for their basic human needs. Then they turn to drug dealing and other criminal enterprises to raise the extra cash needed for those little extras the government does not provide.
In commenting on this phenomenon, Kevin Glass wrote: “…it might be hard to believe…that there has been no progress in combating poverty in the United States over the last 50 years. There are definite ways we have progressed. But still, it’s…difficult to attribute this to the government’s War on Poverty. We’ve officially spent trillions, and that’s not including some of the programs meant to help low-income people that aren’t an official part of the War on Poverty, like Medicaid. The War on Poverty might not be a complete failure. But in light of the federal government’s meager advances despite the money spent, it might behoove us to ask if there’s a better way than pumping money into bloated government programs.”
Here is a hard truth that all Americans will eventually have to come to grips with. We will never alleviate poverty by making it a comfortable and acceptable way of life. Nor will we eliminate it by continuing to allow liberal politicians to purposefully increase the welfare rolls for political purposes. In the final analysis, the most effective way to decrease the number of people living in poverty is to ensure that they are motivated to work their way out of poverty. Providing people with microwave ovens, air conditioners, personal computers, cell phones, and all of the other amenities of wealth does not motivate them to get out of poverty. It motivates them to perpetuate it, and this is exactly what has happened as a result of the misnamed war on poverty.
Government handouts that transform able-bodied people into economic slaves and make poverty a comfortable way of life that is passed from generation to generation help no one. Liberals who claim to help the poor while in reality manipulating them into lifelong dependence hurt those living in poverty, those whose taxes pay for the war on poverty, and America. The charade cannot be sustained. Economically the war on poverty is a train wreck waiting to happen—a misguided concept that will eventually bankrupt America.