New Census data released on Tuesday showed that 45.3 million Americans — 14.5 percent of the population — lived below the poverty level in 2013, earning less than $23,830 in a family of four or $11,890 as individuals.
But struggling families shouldn’t take their financial hardships to the conservative Heritage Foundation. According to Robert Rector, a senior fellow at the conservative think tank, America’s poor are actually rich in amenities and aren’t as poor as they think.
“For most Americans, the word ‘poverty’ means significant material deprivation, an inability to provide a family with adequate nutritious food, reasonable shelter and clothing,” Rector writes in an op-ed for Investor’s Business Daily, adding that “only a small portion of the more than 40 million people labeled as poor by Census fit that description.” That’s because the typical “poor” family lives in a house or apartment that is “uncrowded and actually larger than the average dwelling of non-poor French, Germans or English.” Poor people have “air-conditioning, cable or satellite TV, and a computer.” Forty percent even own “a wide-screen HDTV, and another 40 percent have Internet access,” he writes. “Three quarters of the poor own a car and roughly a third have two or more cars.”
Rector’s statistics are intriguing, but owning a modern day appliance is hardly indicative of economic largess. After all, microwaves, refrigerators, and commonly used consumer products like cell phones have become necessities in the 21st century and are significantly cheaper today than they were decades earlier. Internet access has even been shown to lift people out of poverty. The real costs straining family finances aren’t laptops or HDTVs; they’re basic necessities like child care, medical expenses, housing, and college tuition.
For instance, the Census estimates that in inflation-adjusted dollars, average weekly child care expenses increased by over 70 percent between 1985 — when families paid an average of $87 a week — and 2011 — — when families paid $148 a week for care. The agency estimated that for low-income families, child care alone could represent as much as 39.6 percent of family income. Add that to the skyrocketing cost of housing and education, and the strain becomes almost unbearable at a time when wages are barely keeping up with inflation and the median household income remains essentially unchanged from where it was a year ago. According to the latest data on consumer spending from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the poor already spend 60 percent of their budgets on basics like housing, utilities, transportation, and home-cooked food, while richer families spend 45 percent.
All this describes an economy in which poor or lower income Americans are still struggling to find good paying full time jobs and provide for their families. But if you ask Heritage the solution to their plight is simple: just trade in your refrigerator for an ice box.