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The Great “Poverty Line” Lie!

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The Great “Poverty Line” Lie!

Just how poor are America’s poor?

Learn the why behind the headlines.

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Of the 300 million-plus people living in the United States of America, 37 million live at or below the poverty line! This is according to an annual report on poverty released in 2006 by the U.S. Census Bureau, which studied the nation’s standard of living and included various factors related to the population’s daily living conditions.

The realization that more than 12% of U.S. citizens are struggling to survive day to day is used as evidence by politicians, pundits and news organizations to prove that two Americas exist: “the have’s” and “the have not’s.”

Yet certain questions arise: Just how bad have economic conditions become for tens of millions of Americans? How can so many be living below the poverty line? Is there something that can be done?

Before solutions can be proposed, a key question must first be answered and understood: What are the factors used to determine who is poor in America?

Living in Poverty?

In a Jan. 27, 1838, public address, Abraham Lincoln, who later became the 16th President of the United States, stated the following: “We find ourselves in the peaceful possession, of the fairest portion of the earth, as regards extent of territory, fertility of soil, and salubrity of climate…We…found ourselves the legal inheritors of these fundamental blessings. We toiled not in the acquirement or the establishment of them.”

Does this still hold true today—are the American people still the recipients of blessings that Lincoln clearly recognized almost 170 years ago?

The U.S. government derived “poverty thresholds” in 1963-64 to determine levels of economic stress and food budgets for low income families. Today, the poverty index bears little resemblance to what most typically associate with poverty or the poor.

In 2003, for example, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development asked the following question of the general public: “How would you describe being poor in the U.S.?” The vast majority of responses indicated that “homelessness, hunger, not being able to eat ‘properly,’ and not being able to meet basic needs” were criteria for considering someone was “poor.”

In 2006, the Heritage Foundation, a prominent conservative think tank, conducted a comprehensive and comparative study to determine how the poverty line is defined. Based on research on living conditions reported by those classified as poor, the findings were quite revealing.

One of the clearest and most easily definable factors in determining daily living conditions around the world is whether a person has enough daily food and a minimum quality of food. According to the 2006 Heritage report, “Survey data shows that nutriment density (amount of vita­mins, minerals, and protein per kilocalorie of food) does not vary by income class…In reality, government data show that most poor households do not suffer even from temporary food shortages.”

Overall, 98% of U.S. households reported that they always had “enough food to eat” during the past four months (although not always the types of food they would have preferred). Some 1.8% of all households reported they “sometimes” did not have enough food to eat during the previous four months, while only 0.4% said they “often” did not have enough food.

In other words, although a small few of those considered poor reported there were “temporary shortfalls” of food availability, there was no discernable difference in the quality of food available. The only real difference, when compared with those with higher incomes, was in food choices.

Ironically, the biggest problem facing America’s poor is obesity—or over consumption—which is reaching near epidemic proportions.

Also included in the Heritage report findings for those defined as poor:

  • 43% own their 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.”

  • They have significantly more “living space” than does the average citizen living in affluent international cities such as London, Paris, Vienna and Athens. Only 6% of those living below America’s poverty line reported their living conditions as being “overcrowded.”

Next, consider that most today take pleasure in amenities that were considered luxuries just a generation or two ago. For instance, of the 37 million labeled “poor” in the U.S., 80% enjoy the comforts of air-conditioning, as opposed to only 36% of the entire population in 1970.

America’s “poor” are also swimming in technology-related goods and services:

  • 97% own color televisions (over half have two or more)

  • 63% have either cable or satellite access

  • Over 99% have refrigerators

  • 73% own microwave ovens

  • One in three households have automatic dishwashers

  • One-third have cell phones, landline phones and telephone answering machines—less than a paltry 10% “survive” without telephone service at all.

  • Almost three-quarters own a car and—more surprisingly—over 30% own two cars or more!

These are hardly the difficult conditions most Americans envision when describing the poor. One is left to wonder: Where are the millions of U.S. citizens who are living in “incredible poverty,” as so many politicians and media pundits adamantly assert?

Compared to Other “Developed Countries”

Billions of poor around the world live in conditions that those in Western Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are unable to fully comprehend—from tiny huts on the islands of Indonesia, where people are still struggling to recover from the catastrophic effects of the 2004 tsunami, to war-torn Central Africa, where hundreds of millions struggle daily to find enough—and drinkable—water and food to survive.

However, comparing the daily living conditions of America’s poor to those living in countries of “low human development” (as the United Nations defines them)—commonly referred to as “Third World” nations—is an unfair comparison. A better gauge of the standard of living and blessings that the United States enjoys is to compare it with other “first world” or “high human development” nations, such as Brazil and Russia. For instance, 10% of the Brazilian population does not have access to an improved water source, and only 23% have landline telephones. The UN also found that from 1990 to 2005, 45% of Russian citizens lived on less than $4 per day.

According to the United Nations 2007/2008 Human Development Report, “average” citizens living in many of these countries live well below America’s standard of living for its poor. In general, the homes, cars, food intake and luxury items that the poorest U.S. citizens enjoy are well beyond the levels that average citizens residing in other highly developed nations possess.

Still the Land of Opportunity

Make no mistake: The poor do exist in the United States. There are, for instance, “the working homeless,” who live day-to-day in deplorable circumstances; people such as Chris Gardner, whose life the film The Pursuit of Happyness was based upon. Living on a $1,000 monthly stipend from an internship, Mr. Gardner and his son struggled to survive, experiencing homelessness to the point of sleeping in a subway bathroom and spending the night underneath his desk when shelters were full.

However, Chris Gardner did not remain trapped in poverty. Employing vision, diligence, resourcefulness and perseverance, his life vastly changed for the better—and he became a self-made millionaire.

Freeganism: A Fringe Lifestyle Thriving on America’s Excess

Freegans rummage through bags in a dumpster, as others stand outside inspecting vegetables.

In America, there is a small but growing group of people who find they can live relatively normal lives without automobiles, homes or jobs—who rummage through what is thrown out and barter for their belongings—to make their lifestyle a political statement against “consumerist America.”

They are called “freegans.” The name is a combination of the words free and vegan (a person who does not eat or buy animal-based products, to protest animal cruelty). The basic philosophy of “freeganism” goes like this: The only way to remove oneself from consumerism is to buy and sell as little as possible since anything a person purchases contributes to exploiting the environment, animals or other humans.

Instead of contributing to the consumerist system, freegans live off the waste that others produce. This is often done by scavenging through dumpsters for usable items, essentially “reclaiming” items destined for the landfill.

Through word of mouth or Internet forums, freegans find and share the best places to get free merchandise, such as the days when department and grocery stores throw out old products to make room for the new: day-old baked goods, produce, new clothing, furniture, etc.

Freeganism also emphasizes a mix of lawful and unlawful practices, such as repairing broken items rather than tossing them out, hitchhiking, train-hopping, or “squatting” in (illegally occupying) vacant or abandoned buildings. Extreme freegans even encourage stealing from one’s employer—rationalizing that because employers “steal” one's time and energy, one can steal from them.

On the other hand, other practices include giving back to the area where a freegan lives, such as turning a litter-filled lot into a community garden, starting art programs for children, and emphasizing environmentalism.

Asked during a televised interview with MSNBC why she ate out of trashcans, a freegan answered, “I would say it’s a political choice as much as anything else. There’s so much waste in America. I think America is just an example of what’s going on. We’re at a point in our society where we’re throwing out tremendous amounts of perfectly usable food, clothing, electronics, etc., that a group of us think that it’s a perfectly rational choice to save that, to salvage that.”

She went on to describe what freegans found while digging through the trash of grocery stores: “I think if you actually saw it, though, you would realize that a lot of it is not nasty. And we find half cases of perfectly good—for instance, a half a case of arugula that’s never made it out onto the shelves of the store, all wrapped up. Portabella mushrooms is another example.

“You find cans that are ever so slightly dented,” she added. “You find bread in abundance. You find all sorts of things, especially at the major supermarkets, where the managers don’t control the ordering. So they get in lots of food—then they have to get rid of that ‘lots of food,’ even if that food has absolutely nothing wrong with it.”

Freeganism is still a small movement not making a huge impact on how “consumerist American” is run. However, this fringe lifestyle reveals that one can live relatively comfortably without a job, a car or even a home—all while living on the excess waste of America’s national blessings.

America offers something unique to citizens and noncitizens alike: the opportunity to succeed. Mr. Gardner and others before him proved this to be true.

Senior research analyst Robert E. Rector summarized the Heritage Foundation’s findings of the “typical poor person” in the U.S.: “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.”


The true causes leading to citizens living in less than desirable conditions—at least compared to the average middleclass American—can be traced to a number of factors, often tied to moral choices than to circumstances outside their control: failed marriages, children born out of wedlock, illegal immigration, and substance abuse—all of which are, ultimately, choices.

According to the Heritage report, the single largest contributing factor related to child poverty is the low levels of parental work. The report stated, “In good economic times or bad, the typical poor family with children is supported by only 800 hours of work during a year: That amounts to 16 hours of work 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 through the year—nearly 75% of poor chil­dren would be lifted out of official poverty.”

The second leading factor contributing to child poverty is (usually) a preventable one: an increase in single parenthood and a measurable decline in marriage levels. According to information and data analyzed:

  • “Nearly two-thirds of poor children reside in single-parent homes”

  • Each year, 1.5 million are born out of wedlock

  • “If poor mothers married the fathers of their children, almost three-quarters would immediately be lifted out of poverty.”

Another significant contributing factor that may surprise most is that the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS), upon which official poverty estimates are based, does not take into account whether a person is a legal or illegal immigrant. Surprisingly, in the most recent population survey, the number of “self-identified” immigrants was ten and eleven million higher than the government’s count of legal immigrants. However, illegal immigrants are counted; conservative estimates indicate that 10% of America’s 37 million “poor” are in the country illegally (Pew Hispanic Center’s Unauthorized Migrants: Numbers and Characteristics).

Yes, There Are “Two Americas”

“Two Americas” do exist—but they are not the “have’s” and “have not’s,” but rather the “blessed” and the “extremely blessed.” Even those who live in the “worst” conditions in the U.S. enjoy a standard of living that has not been realized for hundreds of millions throughout mankind’s history.

Yet an attitude of entitlement is pervasive throughout American society, treating material possessions, such as color televisions, cell phones and other luxuries, as needs. These are largely viewed as “inalienable rights” in the minds of those spoiled by the nation’s vast wealth and abundance.

Still, with all of these unbelievable blessings and material possessions, the U.S. is sinking to previously unseen lows in regard to moral standards—the daily choices that our citizens make. Millennia ago this was foretold to happen to the birthright nations descended from ancient Israel, primarily the American and British peoples.

God Almighty stated, in Jeremiah 5:7-8, “When I had fed them to the full, they then committed adultery, and assembled themselves by troops in the harlots’ houses. They were as fed horses in the morning: every one neighed after his neighbor’s wife.” So many of the problems facing those in the U.S., the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and other nations of the West are a direct result of their being blessed beyond imagination—and as our Creator said, they have been “fed to the full.”

With human nature in control, one of the quickest ways to destroy a people is to give them too much. Collectively, the luxuries that have become commonplace in our nation, accompanied by an attitude of entitlement, have begun to destroy it from the inside out. While only a tiny number of the American population is physically poor (compared to the rest of the world), the nation as a whole is poor spiritually. People are “fed to the full” when it comes to material possessions, yet live miserable lives—ignorant of the way that results in true abundant living!

As men search for answers to improve the physical lives of all citizens, few truly understand the miserable spiritual conditions they are in.

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