NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

How Poor is "Poor"?

September 18, 2012

This month the U.S. Bureau of the Census released its annual report on income and poverty. It showed no improvement in the conditions of impoverished Americans, says Robert Rector, a senior research fellow in domestic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.

  • More than 46 million Americans, or 15 percent of the population, were considered poor in 2011.
  • This is an increase of 9.8 million people from 2006.

When the average American hears the term poverty, they conjure up images of destitution: people that can't provide food, shelter or clothing for themselves or their families. That is not the case, as most families that are in poverty have access to all essential needs, including health care.

  • A family of four is considered poor if its annual income falls below about $23,000.
  • About 80 percent of poor adults and 96 percent of poor children were never hungry at any time during the year.
  • The average consumption of protein, vitamins and minerals is nearly the same for both poor and middle-class families.
  • Additionally, 80 percent of poor households had air conditioning, two-thirds had cable or satellite television, 43 percent had internet, and one-third had wide-screen televisions.

When classifying a family as poor, the government doesn't include the benefits these families receive in the form of food stamps, public housing or other forms of welfare. In fiscal year 2011, the federal government spent $927 billion on several means-tested programs to help impoverished families. About one-third of the U.S. population received some sort of support from the government.

Instead of defining people as poor, it would be more apt to describe poor families in terms of how self-sufficient they are -- the ability to sustain an income above the poverty level without the help of the government. So while 46.2 million Americans weren't necessarily poor, they did lack self-sufficiency. Rather than focusing on helping poor families, the government should target policies that promote self-sufficiency.

Source: Robert Rector, "How Poor is 'Poor'?" National Review Online, September 13, 2012.


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