What is poor? That's the question the Heritage Foundation explored in their study 'What is Poverty in the United States Today?' The answers might surprise you.
First, let's explore our perception of poverty. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development polled Americans and asked them, "How would you describe being poor in the U.S.?" The vast majority focused on homelessness and hunger or not being able to eat properly, and things like electricity and running water. If perception were reality and that was how the Census Bureau characterized poverty then very few of the 30 million they term poor would actually be so.
Here's how the government describes a typical American household in poverty. They have a car. They have air conditioning. They typically have two color TVs, a DVD player and cable or satellite TV. They have a fridge, an oven and stove, and a microwave. They have a washer and dryer, coffee maker, ceiling fans and, yes, even a cordless phone. The kids have either an Xbox or a PlayStation. Many have a personal computer and a cell phone.
In fact, the average poor American has more living space than the average regular European. The government report says the typical poor family in America is not hungry, has enough money to pay for essentials and is not lacking health care.
And what about the image we have of the family that's homeless, wondering where the next meal is coming from? That segment of the population is only about 0.5 percent of the families, not 30 million, as the government would have us believe. In most cases homelessness is a temporary situation, not a permanent one.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development says that on any given night in 2009 there were 643,067 homeless. Many of them were temporarily homeless because the total number of homeless for the year was 1.6 million. Many people habitually on the streets are substance abusers and/or just plain bums.
That's not to say that we shouldn't try to help them. We should, but we should know what we're dealing with. Many people are just plain sorry and their situation isn't going to change until they do.
Homelessness or near homelessness is what we associate with poverty but that's simply not the case with the majority of poor.
Government statistics show that the poor generally lag about a decade behind on getting modern conveniences but they do eventually get them. Thus the standard of living of the average poor person in America is above what the standard of living was for the average American a couple of decades ago.
Oh, but what about nutrition?
We're always hearing about how the poor aren't getting the proper nutrition and the Obama administration is harping on so-called "food deserts" where nutritious food is scarce. Turns out the average consumption of proteins, vitamins and minerals is the same for the poor as it is for the middle class. In fact, the intake of protein for poor children is higher than it is for rich kids and 100 percent above the recommended level.
One poll asked if you agreed with the following statement: "A family in the U.S. that has a decent, un-crowded house or apartment to live in, ample food to eat, access to medical care, a car, cable television, air conditioning and a microwave at home should not be considered poor." Eighty percent of Republicans and 70 percent of Democrats agreed.
If we're going to help solve the poverty problem we first need a government that doesn't lie to us about what the problem really is.
Phil Valentine is a talk-show host. E-mail him at philvalentine.com