Just came across some interesting numbers on American poverty, through this report: “Understanding Poverty in America“. In the write-up below, I am presenting some interesting highlights from the 2004 report (which is based on the Census data from 2002).
To better appreciate the facts, it is important to view them in light of the poverty thresholds (income levels below which a person or a family is considered “poor”) for 2002. Towards that, here are some of the 2002 poverty thresholds from Census.gov.
- Single person: $9,183
- Two person household: $11,756
- Three person household: $14,348
- Four person household: $18,392
In 2002, according to the US Census Bureau, there were about 35 million “poor” Americans - people who were below those thresholds.
Now, let’s move on to the *typical* characteristics of these poor people, as mentioned in the report [by the way, always keep in mind that "typical" does not mean "all" - it is just a statistical average, and there are always some data that do not fit in this average].
The following are facts about persons defined as “poor” by the Census Bureau, taken from various government reports:
- Forty-six percent of all poor households actually own their own homes. The average home owned by persons classified as poor by the Census Bureau is a three-bedroom house with one-and-a-half baths, a garage, and a porch or patio.
- Seventy-six percent of poor households have air conditioning. By contrast, 30 years ago, only 36 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.
- Only 6 percent of poor households are overcrowded. More than two-thirds have more than two rooms per person.
- The average poor American has more living space than the average individual living in Paris, London, Vienna, Athens, and other cities throughout Europe. (These comparisons are to the average citizens in foreign countries, not to those classified as poor.)
- Nearly three-quarters of poor households own a car; 30 percent own two or more cars.
- Ninety-seven percent of poor households have a color television; over half own two or more color televisions.
- Seventy-eight percent have a VCR or DVD player; 62 percent have cable or satellite TV reception.
- Seventy-three percent own microwave ovens, more than half have a stereo, and a third have an automatic dishwasher.
Here is what the report says about the food/hunger situation of the poor people:
When asked, some 89 percent of poor households reported they had “enough food to eat” during the entire year, although not always the kinds of food they would prefer. Around 9 percent stated they “sometimes” did not have enough to eat because of a lack of money to buy food.
And, about the general financial situation:
Some 70 percent of poor households report that during the course of the past year they were able to meet “all essential expenses,” including mortgage, rent, utility bills, and important medical care.
The report later concludes:
The typical American defined as “poor” by the government has a car, air conditioning, a refrigerator, a stove, a clothes washer and dryer, and a microwave. He has two color televisions, cable or satellite TV reception, a VCR or DVD player, and a stereo. He is able to obtain medical care. His home is in good repair and is not overcrowded. By his own report, his family is not hungry and he had sufficient funds in the past year to meet his family’s essential needs. While this individual’s life is not opulent, it is equally far from the popular images of dire poverty conveyed by the press, liberal activists, and politicians.
Honestly, the data had me confused about my definition of poverty. Irrespective of how low the income is, if a person (or a family) is able to enjoy most of the things that an average family can enjoy, is able to get proper nourishment, and is able to meet all “essential expenses”, how can such a person be termed as “poor”?
These facts bring up some food for thought. Here is what I have been thinking:
- Can people really be defined as “poor” based on the income criteria? In the same breath, if income is not a good criteria for defining the “poor” - then it cannot be a good criteria for defining the “rich”.
- If you look at all the things that a “typical” poor person is enjoying - and then look at the poverty threshold (income level) - it seems to me that poor people might be doing things frugally. Of course this doesn’t say whether they are more (or less) frugal than rich people.
- It can also be construed that poor people are being too consumerist and in fact, are *poor* in the first place because they try to buy too much on too little income. However, “too little” is a very relative term - and it doesn’t make sense to put any dollar amount income levels here.
- Is a person, who is $2,000,000 in net debt, but living in a mansion and earning $100,000 a year, richer or poorer than someone who has a positive net worth but is making ends meet with great difficulties (barely able to provide food, education, shelter, etc) ?
- So who exactly classifies as poor? a person facing financial hardships? but hey, that can happen to people with high income and bad spending habits.
I still don’t have any conclusive answers yet… if you have any, please enlighten us.
A summary of the report referenced above can be obtained through this link (pdf file).