Phony Poverty Study Fools Lazy Journalists

They’re baaack! Once again the Heritage Foundation is mangling statistics to whitewash the ugly facts of life in Republican-run America.

Last time, in 2005, they attacked the image of U.S. soldiers as cannon fodder being exploited for Halliburton. Au contraire, claimed the conservative propaganda mill. American troops, they said were actually “wealthier, more educated and more rural than the average” citizen. Of course, this wasn’t true. “Military personnel are poorer and less educated” than the average Joe, I found when I took a closer look. Heritage’s soldier study used junk logic and apples-to-oranges statistics to promote the GOP’s wars against Iraq and Afghanistan. And it worked.

The lazy men who run the big newspapers and TV networks, deluded into believing there are two sides to every story, dutifully repeated Heritage’s lies. They never questioned a word. More soldiers died. The Heritage story made us feel less guilty about it.

Now Heritage is telling us that there are no poor people–very few, anyway, and then only for short periods of time–in the United States. The truth is that capitalism is failing millions of Americans. The less we think about the problem, the less we think it is a problem, the worse it will become.

The pseudoacademic demagogues of the right want us to distrust our own eyes. Panhandlers? “Homeless by choice” urban campers, Ronald Reagan, patron saint of modern Republicanism, called them. Single mothers? He said they were “welfare queens.” Americans who live in the sprawling slums of the inner cities, the washed-up Walmarted Main Streets of the farm belt, and the scary barred-window suburbs of California and Georgia and Illinois? They’re living large, says the Heritage Foundation in a “study” whose dubious findings have already been reprinted–completely unquestioned, as usual–by hundreds of newspapers read by millions of gullible subscribers.

The Census Bureau says that 36.5 million Americans–one in eight–are poor. But “if poverty means a lack of nutritious food, adequate warm housing, and clothing for a family, then very few of the people identified as living ‘in poverty’ would, in fact, be characterized as poor,” says Heritage’s Robert Rector. “The typical person defined as ‘poor’ by the Census has cable or satellite TV, air conditioning, a microwave, a DVD player or VCR, and two color TVs.”

No doubt, poor people in a technologically advanced nation like the United States don’t live as minimally as those in undeveloped states like Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, on the other hand, a middle-class American homeowner would be spectacularly wealthy. A man worth $500,000 could become a warlord. There are no Afghan billionaires. Poverty is relative.
Even the claim that gadget ownership is incompatible with true poverty doesn’t hold up: Rector refers to “a DVD player or VCR.” But VCRs are antiquated, a decade out of date. It’s like saying that someone who owns “a computer or a typewriter” isn’t poor.

“Poor Americans living in houses or apartments, on average, have more living space per person than does the average citizen living in European countries such as England, France and Germany,” the Heritage study asserts. There’s a footnote–but the source material doesn’t include figures for per-capita housing density in Europe. (As far as I can tell, such data doesn’t exist.) Even if it’s true, though, it’s a factoid without a point. Europe, urbanized for the past 2000 years, has an overall higher population density than we do–yet enjoys the world’s highest standard of living.

The more you think about Heritage’s BS, the worse it gets.

“Three quarters of these ‘poor'”–note the quotes–own a car,” Rector continues. Are those cars in good working order, or up on blocks? He doesn’t say–but there’s a difference.

“When asked, [the typical ‘poor person’] reports that his family was able to obtain medical care whenever needed during the past year,” he continues. True–sorta. Uninsured people often rely on hospitals, enduring long waits and high fees for substandard care rendered by harried emergency room staffers. Hospitals are legally obligated to treat them–but it’s hardly a workable system. Many poor (and middle class) people put off going to the doctor as long as possible.

Then there’s this sparkling gem of compassion: “Some poor families,” admits Rector, “do experience a temporary food shortage, a condition touted as ‘hunger’ by activists. But even this condition is relatively rare: 89 percent of the poor report their families always have ‘enough’ food to eat, while only 2 percent say they ‘often’ do not have enough to eat.”

“Temporary food shortage.” If that isn’t hunger, what is? “Very simply,” says the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “hunger is defined as the uneasy or painful sensation caused by lack of food. When we talk about hunger in America, we refer to the ability of people to obtain sufficient food for their household. Some people may find themselves skipping meals or cutting back on the quality or quantity of food they purchase at the stores. This recurring and involuntary lack of access to food can lead to malnutrition over time.”

Economists consider a society’s infant mortality rate to be the most reliable indicator of its citizens’ quality of life, and the prevalence of poverty. The United States has the second-worst infant morality rate in the industrialized world–behind Latvia, tied with Hungary, Malta, Poland and Slovakia. Western Europe–France, Germany, etc.–kicks our national ass. The poverty rate for American children under 18 was 21.9 percent in 2006, the highest in the developed world.

Upwardly mobile Americans can escape poverty numerous ways–by, for example, earning a college scholarship. But we also suffer a lot of downward mobility, typically after losing a job. “While in any given year 12 to 15 percent of the population is poor,” says Michael Zweig, author of “What’s Class Got To Do With It, American Society in the 21st Century” (2004), “over a ten-year period 40 percent experience poverty in at least one year because most poor people cycle in and out of poverty.”
Even the Heritage Foundation concedes that some poverty exists in this best of all possible laissez faire worlds. But, they argue in the finest tradition of blame-the-victim, it’s “self-inflicted, a result of poor decisions and self-defeating behaviors.”

Poor Americans, they say, have a “weak work ethic.” The evidence: “The typical poor family with children is supported by only 800 hours of work during a year–16 hours per week. “If work in each family were raised to 2,000 hours per year–the equivalent of one adult working 40 hours per week throughout the year–nearly 75 percent of poor children would be lifted out of official poverty.” This assumes that poor parents live in a magical job market where they can work as many hours as they please–a condition that would only exist with zero percent unemployment.

“Father absence is another major cause of child poverty,” says Heritage’s poverty study. True. “Nearly two-thirds of poor children reside in single-parent homes; each year, an additional 1.3 million children are born out of wedlock.” Again true. The conservative solution: “If poor mothers married the fathers of their children, almost three-quarters would immediately be lifted out of poverty.” Stupid welfare queens! Why do they refuse to marry the fathers of their children?

A cat or dog understands hunger. The fact that we have to have this discussion demonstrates the success of the right in redefining basic terms–and the failure of the press to question it.



  • re: Lazy Press
    I wonder why most publications won't hire a journalist without a college degree in journalism. The (almost) entire American media has been lazier than Kayo's Uncle since Ronald Reagan began dishonoring the word and concept, 'hero.' Molly Ivins is dead and Jimmy Breslin made a major faux pas in his last 'official' column by predicting a John Kerry win. Ted is right about the media not checking facts. In fact, the current media apparently doesn't even bother to read other news reports and research, because if they did, they'd have the common sense of the average reader, who sees right through the BS, especially the BS coming out of our disgraced White House. What ever happened to 'The Boy Who Cried Wolf Once Too Often?' How does George W. Bush get pass after pass while Americans and other victims of his war crimes are dying left and right? Bush 'cries often?' Give me a BREAK! Bush plans to make speaches for money after he flees the White House and his trail of death? Will people continue to pay him for lies as we taxpayers are paying him now?
    The fourth estate is already doomed. America will follow shortly. That doesn't mean we won't keep on living and working. We WILL begin to fight with one another the way the Iraqis are doing now. Mad Max was supposed to be fantasy. Thank you, George Fking Bush aka Dick 'DICK' Cheney aka Karl Rove. Let's hope they ALL choke on pretzels!

  • You know the economic outcome for most of the population is bleak when the Powers That Be have to tell us there are few truly poor Americans. Ted cited, of course, the most concrete indicator of societal health (infant mortality), but another one to keep in mind is that the percentage of the population controlling 90% of the nation's wealth isn't getting any larger (still around 10%, I believe), and if you look further into those stats, there are even more depressing figures (can't remember them exactly, so I won't try to quote them). Whenever you see such headlines as "American workers most productive in the world – create more wealth than any other…" or "There are fewer poor folk in America that liberals would have you believe…" remember the facts that get left out of these stories (90% of America gets to fight for 10% of the wealth they slaved to create, an infant mortality rate that matches eastern block countries recovering from economical and governmental collapse).

  • Ted is right. Come to Michigan, and see for your self how good globalization is for the economy. Traditionally Michigan, has been the work horse of industry. The other day my neighbor had the aluminium sidding ripped off his house while he was out of town. A good wage here now is $12 american with no benifits. It's the whole wage re-education bit of Tom Toles. $25 was good, now, $7 or $8 with no benies is a good job!

  • Ted, thanks for your commentary. I still need to actually read the Heritage paper on my own, but if what you write is even remotely true, then the writers of that paper should be completely ashamed. What a disgrace.

  • As a journalist, let me say that I am so disgusted with my profession that I am applying to law school in the hopes of finding a profession of which I can be proud.

    I think it says a lot that I consider being a lawyer a more honorable profession than being a journalist.

    Lastly, I like james' comment about "Mad Max" being a fantasy. Rent or buy "Mad Max II, The Road Warrior."
    At the beginning of the movie, the narrator says that the nuclear war that destroyed civilization was a fight over the "black fuel."

    Scary, huh?

  • Silly poor people! Why can't they just eat cake?
    Or their own dead infants?

  • John Madziarczyk
    September 6, 2007 4:32 AM

    Absolutely. The machine is broke and there's no obvious way to put it back together. Some sort of social democratic legislation would be required to stop the hemorraging (sp?) of wealth from the bottom to the top.

    For so many things going on now the solution appears to be some sort of socialism, something consciously enacted and not just kind of snuck in there. By that I don't mean that, gee, the only thing that can help the U.S. in the immediate future is a revolution! Instead, I just mean a kind of conscious recentering of things towards meeting the demands of social justice.

    Liberalism, in my opinion, as practiced in the United States has reached a dead end. The only way to fix things now is social democracy or something further to the left.

  • Further to the left? Like Communism? How about something closer to the middle. This extremism crap has to end.

  • I dunno, Owen. Do you really think the answer to right-wing extremism is moderation or centrism? Clinton tried that. All he got was slightly watered down conservatism…moderation may well only be achievable by applying a dose of progressism that lasts long enough to eradicate the excesses of conservatism (there's a funny oxymoron).

  • Ted:

    I enjoyed this last article. Thank you for highlighting the fact that poverty in America is not some inflated myth.

    As aside, you never show your citations. I know that you've stated before that you think that people should do their own research, but is it really so onerous to add a citation once in a while for the really important items?? I submit that the infant mortality data alone would merit that…

  • Owen,
    I wouldn't call Social Democracy "leftist". Not as I know it from my native Scandinavia. It's more "centrist" than centrist-right, but far from leftist.
    And even though our economy is mostly dependent on the oil we pump up and sell, we never turned out like Nigeria, Iraq or Saudi Arabia.

  • America: The Worlds Richest Third World Nation
    I work 40 hours a week teaching kids in a public school, and go to school myself. I have no health insurance, I am a skeleton, I never see my family, I am in debt until I'm 45 (that's negative numbers folks), and I spend 2 hours a day going nuts in a car that might kill me. The upside is that I can drink, but it will have to be at home since "buzzed driving is drunk driving", and mass transit is still dead.

    America: This Life Is Worth Killing For
    While the best educators leave the public schools in droves, I am forced to pay hundreds of dollars per year to pay for the killing of other people, and to subsidize the military and their contractors. I also pay for cops to write tickets and sit in bathrooms all day, waiting to bust in-the-closet gays.

    America: Hey, it's Not Ethiopia
    Just because multinational corporations rape the earth and its people to make cheap food and electronic junk, does not mean I'm not poor.
    How many of the 'real poor' are made so by the World Bank, US corporations, and US foreign policy? To say that we are lucky because this did not happen to us is just silly.

    The fact that the Whoritage Foundation gets more coverage than real scholars is all the proof I need that it is too late. If Obama or Hillary wins, I'm out like trout.

  • two party system means you gotta be extreme. This ain't Europe.

  • [panel 1]
    guy1, guy2 and guy3 standing there
    [panel 2]
    guy1 shoots guy2
    [panel 3]
    guy1 steals guy3's wallet
    [panel 4]
    guy3: my life sucks.
    guy1: (points to guy2) not as much as his…

  • Hello,

    I heard this:
    lay off = involuntary attrition or work force management.
    laid off workers = participants of the above "programs".

    Never read somebody making up a term for hunger. My blood boils! There was Tamil poet Subramania Bharathi who sang(during Indian freedom struggle time): "even if one person goes hungry, we will destroy the world".

    Not addressing the poverty is one, and just blatant denial is another and most heinous thing.

    When will the relentless acts of dumbing down Americans stop?

    Support Dennis Kucinich!

  • I think it's unfair to blame journalists for being lazy when magazines like People or Globe outself Newsweek or Time by a country mile.

    If you published a well-written, thoroughly researched, objective newspaper, would anyone buy it?

    The average American can talk more about last night's contestant on "Power of 10" than about the US fiscal deficit. From thence, start all of your problems.

  • Re: Your September 6 cartoon
    Ted: Please, draw one huge panel of a rigid penis with the short message: George W. Bush is, indeed, a MASS-MURDERING PRICK! Someone has to use the appropriate words.

  • Anonymous said…
    I think it's unfair to blame journalists for being lazy when magazines like People or Globe outself Newsweek or Time by a country mile.

    I think it is unfair to call them journalists. History will show two factors sealed our country's fate:

    1) education cuts
    2) media deregulation

    The latter is more of a nail in coffin, really. Who is responsible? Probably the generation who elected Reagan twice (three times for Californians). It was sad, because that proves that we never really were smart, even before the cuts. Now we have no chance unless we implement the following:

    1) Out-law sports news and sports broadcasts.
    2) delete 90% of the military
    3) Hire Germany to educate us and catch terrorists
    4) News stations are checked fact by fact, and must post their grade right next to their logo in the lower right or left of the TV screen.

  • I sincerely concur with the last person's 4th point. It's absolutely sick that politicians and journalists get away with manipulation and lying, and when one points this out, the responses are always 'it's inevitable'….no, it's not, if we disqualify any official running for public office for gross misleading of factual evidence.

    That will take care of all the GOP and most of the Democrats as well.

    Along these lines, anyone who advocates committing a crime or violating the constitution as part of their political platform should be indicted for conspiracy to commit a crime.

    That would take care of all but 2 of the GOP candidates for President (the two being Paul and McCain) on conspiracy to violate the UN Convention on Torture.

  • thanks for agreeing with #4. That was more of the no brainer of the set.
    How funny it will be when a dems unwittingly approve US inclusion in the International Court and wind up being charged by Swedes for violating the US constitution.

    Unfortunately Paul is a far-right fiscal conservative who would do well to read his J. M. Keynes.
    Talk about an "in the long run" economist. Still, imagine how healthy Kucinich v. Paul might be for the country.
    oops, nevermind. No one will watch because their vocabulary would be too low to understand the debate, or the debate will be on the same night as a national sports broadcast.
    (How will I kill myself tonight?)

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