If you were to look up the word poor in almost any dictionary you would find a definition with the lack of money or material resources at its core. For many years this definition was sufficient to describe what poor was. Poverty was measured by the absence of money and materials deemed necessary to live a life consistent with societal norms. Whether people possessed enough food to eat, clothing to keep warm, and shelter to protect them from the elements were the crux of the matter. However, since the expansion of the welfare state in this country and other parts of the world a different picture is emerging which may require an altogether different definition. The poor “aint so poor no more,” at least by traditional standards of what poor means.
As of 2001 most of those defined as “the poor” possessed things that were once exclusive to the middle class. Ninety-eight percent of them owned a DVD player or videocassette recorder, while 97 percent owned a color TV. What is more ironic is the fact that less than half of all Americans owned a color TV in 1971. Seventy-two percent of the poor owned a car or truck, while 73 percent have microwaves and air conditioning.* Moreover, it is noted the living space of the poor in America is bigger than the living space of the average person in Europe. The lack of necessary materials that use to be the benchmark for defining poverty is becoming an obsolete way to describe it. One only has to take notice of the smart phones, iPods, and other technological gadgetry that adorn the lives of those who proclaim to live on a meager wage to know that we no longer live in a nation of “haves” and “have nots.” We are a nation of “haves” and “have mores,” or perhaps “want mores.” With this obvious shift in material well-being taking place among the “the poor” a few oddities have emerged that require an explanation. Like the fact that those living below the official poverty line in this nation spend $1.75 for every dollar of income.** Now I am no mathematician but I know enough to know that is unsustainable unless there is income unaccounted for when we are talking about the poor. One of the many “tricky” ways in which politicians and other social engineers who seek to use the government purse to ensure votes for their ideas hide these anomalies is by not reporting government transfers of money as income. According to Alan Reynolds in his book “Income and Wealth” in 2001 cash and in-kind transfers (government subsidies) together accounted for 77.8 percent of the economic resources of those in the bottom 20 percent. This leaves just over 20 percent of the economic resources of the poor to be counted when defining who they are. In other words the welfare state has made it possible to live beyond your means. Means of course being defined as an income received in exchange for a legal service rendered.
The Social Divide
The welfare state also contributes to a social rift among the poor. More specifically the respectable working poor and the delinquent poor. This may be an inconvenient point but a major point nonetheless. I have heard personally from many working class people who feel frustrated when they are in the supermarket line buying generic brands to budget and save while the single parent on food stamps (or any of the myriad of gov’t subsidies) next to them has their buggy stacked with all the brand names. To add to this reality the casual observer can see the contrast in appearance of the images of the poor in other nations as compared to ours. In most places where there is “real poverty” the people are predominately frail from a lack of subsistence. However we have to admit that a good amount of those considered poor in our nation are rather rotund. Then there are the single mothers who are less incentivized by the programs to have the fathers active in the lives of the children because they qualify for more of Uncle Sam’s benefits if the father is not involved economically. This is the sinister result of the welfare state. While attempting to artificially achieve economic equality it spreads a social malaise in so far as it makes the honest working poor feel like fools for exerting so much effort to “come up” the right way. Why have a work ethic if your efforts will not net you a subsistence equal to another person who doesn’t work at all? The damage is done to the beneficiary as well who may find it hard to muster the initiative to work their way up, because life in the “safety net” feels more like a hammock. But the most evil of all is the fact that there are genuine poor people who are being further victimized by those who have found it lucrative to act like they are.
(to be continued)
* Alan Reynolds, Income and Wealth, p.67
** Robert Rector, “The Myth of Widespread American Poverty,” The Heritage Foundation backgrounder, No 1221, September 18, 1998, p.4