When The Poor Aren't Really Poor

One of the strange things I've noticed about America as compared to many other countries is this: our perception of poverty is quite different than anyone else's. It's not that our definition of 'poor' is any different, but how we look at it.

When Americans think of poverty, for the most part they think of the starving multitudes in places far away. Of American poor many Americans will think about those living in the run down sections of our metropolitan areas or the more rural areas of the country (Appalachia comes to mind). Even then the perception is skewed.

While our 'poor' are poor in relation to the average American, they are still far wealthier than the so-called middle class in a lot of other countries.

Let's look at a few examples.

Probably one of the things that used to differentiate our poor from the rest of us was our material wealth, things like homes, cars, TVs, air conditioners, other appliances, and phones (of all things).

But looking at the poor here in the US, we find that a vast majority of them have all these things. While they aren't the fanciest or most expensive, a large majority of those we call poor have them.

Among "the persons whom the Census Bureau identifies as 'poor,' " 38% were homeowners. Among "poor" households, 62% owned a car, 14% two or more cars, nearly half had air-conditioning, and 31% had microwave ovens. "Nationwide, some 22,000 'poor' households have heated swimming pools or Jacuzzis."

While I find it hard to believe the last item, it does illustrate that our definition of what it is to be poor in America is seriously skewed. In John Barron's Mig Pilot, Lt. Viktor Belenko relates his impression of America he gained while watching a propaganda film showing how poor and oppressed the American people were. But what the film showed him was that even the 'poor and oppressed peoples' in America had their own apartments, automobiles, TVs, refrigerators, and stoves, something the average Soviet citizen could only dream about. The poor in America were wealthy compared to average Soviet citizen.

One thing that has come full circle (or should I saw has flipped upside down) is phones. Yes, phones.

Starting some time in the early 20th Century and lasting through the early 1960's, it was quite common to find people with telephones quite often had them in their front hallway, where it sat on a small table. It wasn't uncommon for there to be a chair next to the table. These furnishings accomplished two things: it established that the homeowner had enough money to afford a telephone and it gave them a place to sit while they used it. It wasn't common that the average homeowner had more than one phone, and the one they had was in plain sight of any visitor entering the home.

Then when mobile telephones became available, it was primarily the wealthy who had them. At the same time the average American family, even the poorer ones, all had telephones in their homes.

Today, that trend has reversed, with the average American carrying a cell phone, even the poorer Americans, while wired telephones are fading away. (We here at The Manse have just canceled our landline service. It made no sense to be paying for a landline and our cell phones when we rarely use the landline any more.)

One thing only rich people had back in 1990, though, was portable telephones. That's changed, hasn't it? If you're reading this column, you very likely have a cellular phone. You may even be reading this column on your cellular phone.

But cellphones aren't just ubiquitous. In what the New York Times calls "a strange twist," they've become symbols of poverty. Arkansas and Mississippi, those perennial economic laggards, "find themselves at the top of a new state ranking: They have the highest concentrations of people in the nation who have abandoned landlines in favor of cellular phones."

Cell phones are cheaper than wired phones, and with the many pre-paid plans out there, is it any wonder the poor have taken to them?

Soon, only businesses and the 'wealthy' will still have them.

I could go on and on, making one comparison after another. The fact is that poverty, while it still exists in the US, is not anywhere near the same as it was back in the 60's, 70's, or 80's. Most of today's poor in America are better off than many of the middle class in the 70's.

Are there still pockets of abject poverty in the US? Absolutely. But that doesn't mean we need to spend billions trying to remove those last bastions of true poverty. It won't work. Better that we let the economy recover and do its best to eliminate the problem.