Poverty means transient, unsafe, and crowded housing situations. These do not offer the quiet, well-lit homework zone most teacher magazines recommend I suggest to parents at conferences. Nor do they support regular, uninterrupted sleep. Low-quality housing in industrial neighborhoods causes health problems like asthma; these health problems further disrupt sleep and impact learning. Sick kids can't get to school. This housing is often located in food deserts, so even if our hypothetical poor family receives food assistance (California ranks 50 out of 50 in participation in food stamp programs by eligiblity), healthy food is not necessarily available. Malnutrition and hunger impact learning: hungry children are not focusing on academic content.
I could go on like this for pages. I think it's clear that we have an enormous problem. It's also a problem that we have the means and ability to solve. We do not live in a poor nation. Tax rates are at incredible lows. Income disparity is a yawning gap. Safety net spending is miniscule. Rather than investing in a healthy, well-educated society - don't you think a civil democracy needs one? - we are choosing to abandon one in every six Americans.
However, we can't even have a serious discussion about poverty and what it would take to at the very least mitigate poverty rates and provide a minimal standard of living and education for every American. And that's because some people will think, say, and do anything to avoid it. From the article linked above:
Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, believes the social safety net has worked and it's now time to cut back. He worries that advocates may use a rising poverty rate to justify additional spending on the poor, when in fact, he says, many live in decent-size homes, drive cars and own wide-screen TVs.
First off, I've got to say that Mr. Rector has needs a hobby if worrying about spending on the undeserving, television-owning poor is keeping him up nights. But more importantly, Mr. Rector's statement is the worst kind of dodge. It's the kind of argument we see about pensions - "I don't have a pension and will starve in the street if I try to retire," observes quoted Voter X. "So why should anyone else?" The possibility that Voter X might be better served by a wider public pension system or more generous Social Security benefits is not addressed.
Rather than admitting that a rising poverty rate might in fact be a problem, Mr. Rector would like you to focus on how the poor aren't really poor. After all, they own things. Mr. Rector does not believe the poor should own things, I guess. Whether he thinks Oliver Twist-esque workhouses are the solution or not he doesn't mention, but clearly poor people shouldn't be participating in this whole "Ownership Society" thing - or at least not the parts that involve, you know, actually owning anything.
I'd like to take a moment, though, to look into these possessions that the poor may have, thereby causing Mr. Rector to doubt their poverty.
- "Decent-size" homes. Mr. Rector does not explain what "decent-sized" means. Nor does he explain whether or not he is accounting for how many people are living in that home. Nor does he tell us whether the home is well-maintained or in a nice neighborhood. Notice, too, that Mr. Rector isn't claiming that the poor own these homes. If some person's apartment over at Sunnydale is larger than Mr. Rector feels is appropriate (even if the entire extended family is sharing it), that person qualifies as indecently over-housed in his view. What a broad-minded and charitable individual, no? (He's also not considering the newly-poor, unemployed and stuck in homes with underwater mortgages until they are evicted during foreclosure proceedings. But I digress.) Don't miss that he's talking about decent-sized homes. Apparently the real poor live in indecently-sized homes. Any decency should not be provided to the poor, huffs Mr. Rector.
- "Drive cars". Let's go back to our hypothetical Sunnydale dweller in his or her huge apartment. Sunnydale is located in the far southeast side of the city. It is largely surrounded by a park. Local labor opportunities are few and in between. Sunnydale is served by two bus routes. So if our Sunnydale resident has a job, he or she can commit to a daily commute of at least an hour by bus or buy a cheap used car. I'm guessing that Mr. Rector is not a big fan of government spending on public transportation - the kind that would be necessary to make not owning a car a possibility for the rural poor, people living in poverty in very spread-out suburban areas, poor people in underserved neighborhoods, and so on. "Poor people should take the bus!" howls Mr. Rector. "Public transportation funding is a boondoggle!" he adds. So should the poor walk? Mr. Rector wants you to focus on the undeserving poor he posits, not the fact that he has deposited them in a Catch-22.
- "Wide-screen tvs". This one always gets me. Beyond the fact that a wide-screen television isn't terribly expensive these days (Mr. Rector is living in the late 1980s, I think), and that people who want television recently had to upgrade their sets to receive HD programming, television is the cheapest appliance available if you think about its many purposes.* Television can provide news, entertainment, education - heck, even religion! - with low upkeep and electricity costs. Televisions are durable and fun for the whole extended family living in their too-generously sized home. I understand that Mr. Rector thinks the poor should be picking oakum and doesn't think they need to be informed, but this idea that television ownership is a dividing line between the poor and not-poor (or the deserving poor and those not deserving) is hogwash.
So Mr. Rector wants us to focus on those terrible, not very poor people in poverty. Rather than examining what it would take to have a robust safety network, we should condemn one in six Americans for the crime of possibly owning a television. This is certainly a popular and powerful way to control our political debate. It's also dishonest, peripheral, a dodge, and extraordinarily hateful. I hope that Mr. Rector never finds himself in poverty. But if he did, I doubt a television, a car, and a decent-sized dwelling would make him feel less so.
*For the record, I do not actually own a television. I don't mean to argue that television is a wonderful thing. I just want to observe that it is ubiquitous and on an adjusted by use basis a good investment.