NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

What Does It Mean to Be Poor in America?

July 20, 2011

Each year for the past two decades, the U.S. Census Bureau has reported that over 30 million Americans were living in "poverty."  In recent years, the Census has reported that one in seven Americans are poor.  But what does it mean to be "poor" in America, ask Robert Rector, a senior research fellow, and Rachel Sheffield, a research assistant, at the Heritage Foundation.

To the average American, the word "poverty" implies significant material deprivation, an inability to provide a family with adequate nutritious food, reasonable shelter and clothing.  The actual living conditions of America's poor are far different from these images.

  • According to the government's own survey data, in 2005, the average household defined as poor by the government lived in a house or apartment equipped with air conditioning and cable TV.
  • The family had a car (a third of the poor have two or more cars).
  • For entertainment, the household had two color televisions, a DVD player and a VCR.
  • If there were children in the home (especially boys), the family had a game system, such as an Xbox or PlayStation.
  • In the kitchen, the household had a microwave, refrigerator, and an oven and stove.
  • Other household conveniences included a clothes washer, clothes dryer, ceiling fans, a cordless phone and a coffeemaker.

The home of the average poor family was in good repair and not overcrowded.  In fact, the typical poor American had more living space than the average (non-poor) European.  The poor family was able to obtain medical care when needed.  When asked, most poor families stated they had had sufficient funds during the past year to meet all essential needs, say Rector and Sheffield.

Although the overwhelming majority of the poor are well housed, at any single point in time during the recession in 2009, around one in 70 poor persons was homeless.  Nonetheless, sound public policy cannot be based on faulty information or misunderstanding.  An effective antipoverty policy must be based on an accurate assessment of actual living conditions and the causes of deprivation.

Source: Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield, "Air Conditioning, Cable TV, and an Xbox: What Is Poverty in the United States Today?" Heritage Foundation, July 18, 2011.

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