Something of immense value: Hope

By Tom Morgan


The poor may be always with us. But they are fewer in number than we are often led to believe.

This is the point Douglas Besharov makes. He studies social welfare at the American Enterprise Institute.

As you know our government calculates our poverty rate. The Census Bureau does it. It tells us the poverty rate is a $20,000 income for a family of four. It adjusts that upward every year.

The bureau tells us 12.7 percent of Americans fall below that poverty line. Social critics wail that this shows no improvement over the years. They remind us 12.8 percent of Americans fell below the poverty line as far back as 1968.

Mr. Besharov begs to differ.

First he has us look at other measures of poverty. And at the material well-being of our poor. And at how it has improved. About 93 percent of the poor own color televisions. Half own air-conditioning. Nearly half own their own homes.

You can google the subject and find more evidence. The amount of living space. The number of cars. The amount of food they can afford. All these have increased over the years for the poor.

Then Mr. B. has us look at the hundreds of billions of dollars our poor receive by way of various benefits. We can look at this through a new report from the Census Bureau.

In the new report the bureau looks at “market income.” It factors in income from Social Security. It factors in home ownership.

It also looks at “unreported income.” All of us know there is a lot of unreported income. The Census Bureau consulted a lot of data when it made its estimates.

After factoring in all of this, the bureau calculates our true poverty rate is about 7.8 percent.

But wait. Now the bureau looks at government transfer programs. It calculates money from welfare. It adds in money that food stamps represent. It adds in housing assistance. And it should. After all, if somebody pays your rent or buys your food, your true income has been enhanced.

None of these are counted when the Census Bureau tells us 12.7 percent of us fall below the poverty line.

In this new report, they are.

And when they are, our poverty rate falls to about 5.1 percent. And this does not include any Medicaid the poor receive.

If 5.1 percent is accurate, 15 million Americans fall below that poverty line. And millions more live just above it.

Which is good news and bad, says Mr. B.

The bad news is that anyone lives impoverished. The bad news is that millions enjoy no luxuries. Because they are so poor.

The good news is that we have managed to get the numbers as low as we have. Throughout our history a higher percentage of our people were destitute.

I think the good news is also that most of the poor don’t remain so. In study after study, decade after decade, the poor grow wealthier. The majority of folks on the bottom rung climb higher within a few years.

Which means that not all - but many - of our poor possess something of immense value. They have hope. And good reason to believe their hopes and hard work will lift them out of the worst poverty.

From Tom ... as in Morgan.

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