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The poverty rate in America has declined, not a lot, but some, and for the first time in 10 years, which is very, very good news. The even better news — hard to glean from headlines — is that poverty in America is not what it used to be.
For that matter, it’s not what being middle class could sometimes be in my early childhood in the late 1940s. My family, which was far from rich but hardly poor by the calculations of the times, briefly rented a country house outside Paducah, Ky., and here is what we did not have: running water or any modern conveniences besides a washing machine (which you operated with a hand-driven wringer to squeeze the water out of the clothes). Oh yes, we owned a radio.
Here is what the typical person below the poverty line in America has today: a dryer along with a clothes washer, air conditioning, a microwave, a DVD player, a VCR, two color TVs, a car, access to medical care and enough cash to meet essential needs.
This information comes from a report by a Heritage Foundation research fellow, Robert Rector, whose probing of government data additionally tells us that most of the poor are well-nourished, that 46 percent are homeowners and that most have more living space than the average European.
Some of these 36.5 million people are worse off than that, of course, and being poor is never something to sneeze at, but the exaggerations of some of our politicians pave the road for disastrous policies, which usually consist of more government spending, expanded, redistributionist social programs and increased infringements of one kind and another on the free market.
Abide by such good intentions of the uninformed sort, and you could well undo the advances in the lifestyles of the poor brought about by the innovations and overall societal affluence that have come our way owing to the energies of a relatively unfettered free market. Bother to get informed — learn what really lies behind most U.S. poverty — and then you just might happen on policies that will achieve something.
Rector reviews the causes and concurs with what a number of the most perceptive social analysts have been saying for years, starting with the fact that nothing contributes to poverty like unwed motherhood. Take a husband out of the family equation, and you are taking a lot of money out of the equation, as well. I don’t myself see a government fix here. What’s needed is a cultural revolution taking us back to an understanding that marriage really, truly is vital to society and that having offspring prior to marital vows can often be a form of child abuse.
Next: As Rector points out, people who are poor are people who work far less than people who aren’t poor. What’s needed are job-creation policies (free trade, less regulation and low taxes being among the chief ones), still more emphasis on education and skills-training to equip people for decently remunerative occupations, an end to programs providing disincentives to work and — a cultural issue, again — the instilling of an ethic in every quarter that honest work is honorable and desirable.
And then we have to do something about an immigration system that does next to nothing to prevent illegal aliens from pouring into the country and reconstitute legal immigration to put emphasis on needed skills. People arriving in America without even a high-school education on top of other handicaps in coping with our particular institutions do not advance the economy, despite ideological bunkum to the contrary. They bring poverty with them — and it tends to hang on, generation after generation. Some businesses can get cheaper labor this way, but because of the disparity between what some immigrants contribute in taxes and what they consume in services, it is labor subsidized by taxpayers, as I am scarcely the first to note.
It’s not uncommon in our politics to indulge in overstated sentimentalism as an antidote to our social ills, to close one’s eyes to progress and to accuse those who have better answers of hard-heartedness, as if realistic rationality were a fault. Cool reflection on the facts should lead none of us to shrug our shoulders about families trying to get by on $20,000 a year or less, but it can point us to intelligent solutions to their problems.
(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He is an uncompensated board member of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Media & Public Policy. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)