Some unpopular truths about poverty

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)


  1. mollysgran

    What planet is this guy living on? I live on the west coast of Oregon in county that has seen it lumber and fishing industries disappear. There are some good things “going” for it, but it is mainly an area that people with wealth can move to, and pretend not to see the poverty here. In a rural county with a population of about 30,000 – there are 280 HOMELESS teens! 60% of the school students qualify for subsidized meals!

    Any one who believes that the poverty situation is better than it was – please!!! STAND ON YOUR HEAD!!

    Remember that Ronald Reagan refused to believe that there was ‘hunger in America’. If there were hungry people, it was because they weren’t looking hard enough for someone to give them food.

    I have seen plenty of kids at the middle school where I have worked for 15 years who would be thrilled to have running water, or have their electricity turned back on.

    This article makes me want to scream. How can this Mr. Stupid Ambrose be so ignorant?

  2. scandals

    My heart goes out to all of the children that suffer from hunger and malnutrition.
    However, it is usually a result of bad parneting, not bad social policy concerning welfare and handouts.
    There is help available, everywhere, but when do you close the door on a lifetime of government assistance? When are people responsible for there decisions and circumstances?
    I am not heartless or mean, but I have trouble, sometimes, spotting folks that suffer from poverty, when they have cable and cell phones.
    You show me an unable, poor, suffering person, that has no way out, and I’ll show you some cash. As for now, I’ll help the kids.
    “In a rural county with a population of about 30,000 – there are 280 HOMELESS teens!” Where are there parents?
    ” 60% of the school students qualify for subsidized meals!” You mean that schools feed children for free! Wow, you would have never guessed it from the reports of how bad folks have it.
    I know that some folks have it rough, but for most, they made there beds. Don’t make me “lie” in it too.


    Next to crook TV, poverty is the ultimate form of totalitarian control.

    John Hanks, Laramie, Wyoming

  4. Jellicoe

    Another punchy, free enterprise, free trade, minimal taxes, no safety net or other redistributive programs, devil take the hindmost missive from our favorite unpaid board member of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Media & Public Policy. Thank you so much, Mr. Spin. We’ll all try to do better in the future, stop indulging in “overstated sentimentalism” and adopt the proper “hard-heartedness” that inevitably flows from the application of “realistic rationality”. Thank you so much for condescendingly straightening us all out. Have a nice Labor Day weekend in your secure, gated community, or whatever POSH neighborhood you may haunt.

  5. lexiedogmom

    Lexie Homewood
    Naturally this right wing idealogue quotes a study by the Heritage Foundation, and denigrates findings that dispute it as “idealogical bunkum.” I do agree however that single parenthood (read motherhood) is an enormous cause of poverty. But rather than pointing a finger at the free unfettered marketplace as one of the causes of the widening gap between rich and poor, he touts it as the salvation of those living below the poverty level. Bet you dollars to doughnuts that this man opposed raising the minimum wage.

  6. kiki

    What unmitigated blather! It’s a good thing he’s an “unpaid consultant” to the ultra-right Heritage Foundation. I wouldn’t pay him two cents for his opinion. I wouldn’t believe any government generated statistics on poverty, or anything else for that matter.It’s to Dubya’s advantage to manipulate the figures to show a drop in poverty. Remember Disraeli’s famous quote: “There are lies, damned lies and statistics.”

    Do they keep track of how many people have exausted their unemployment benefits and cannot find another job? What about the number of people working two and three minimum wage jobs and still need assistance from a local food bank ( if they’re lucky) at the end of the month?

    How about the elderly who are trying to make it on a six or eight hundred dollar social security check? Should they buy food, pay the heating bill or not take their prescription medicine this winter?

    These clueless, free-market conservatives disgust me. Jay Ambrose wouldn’t know poverty if it bit him on the azz.

  7. blackcloud27

    Horse manure! This is nothing more that what comes out of the rear end of a horse! Try coming to Surry County NC and see just what the poverty level is. Twentytwo percent of the county is on Medicaid, every food bank in the county runs out by the end of each month. The last of our clothing plants closed this summer with another 1000 people unemployed. Over 10,000 jobs in the past 15 years have gone overseas! The county only has a population of 65,000. NAFTA, China you name it they are gone! The local community college retraining classes are full with a waiting list. The only thing is there are NO JOBS in this county when they finish. The majority of the poor in this county are in their 50’s and 60’s who no one wants to employ. Where are those who have run out of unemployment insurance? They are in the flea markets selling off their goods or working minimum wage jobs.

  8. Boots

    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.



  9. geyser

    Let me understand this, being in Poverty a family can still have, A washer & dryer, A/C, A microwave,
    Two Color TVs, A VCR & DVD, a Car, Access to Medical Care and enough money on hand to have essential needs
    Since this came from a private report, not the government, I have to say, someone has their facts wrong. I was under the impression that living in Poverty, you had no amenities especially, an Automobile, was having Insurance for the car inclueded? A Washer & Dryer, maybe but, I highly doubt everyone in Poverty has them. AS few other item listed also could be had, those that can fall off a Delivery truck going elsewhere.
    Since Poverty level families usually live in say, not the most desireable areas, would not an Alarm System be required, keeping out the “Bad” element?
    I have to be honest not knowing what the current Poverty line is, i’m also too lazy to go look it up but, I seem to remember a figure of 8 thousand or maybe 10 thousand as the level. As single parenthood is still the number one cause to be in poverty, did they use the Sportsmen involved in Basketball and Football as the most involved, using each wife with a child or Two, bringing the numbers to a new level? There are a few with different women having numbers reaching double digits. The women may be at the Poverty level but, the one Father will compensate all of them.
    The information doesn’t jive with the recent report saying the number of children without Health Insurance has risen, sort of contradict each other.
    I think in this case, I’ll wait for W’s number then get the real number from a Whistle Blower.

    Taking One Day at a Time

  10. Jerry

    Maryland Poverty.

    Actually, I’m not at all surprised to learn that folks below the poverty line have microwaves and DVD players. But what Jay Ambrose proposes is that possession of, for example, a DVD player means these people ain’t hard up, but just “misallocating resources.”

    If politicians screw up their state’s education policies, then a lot of people are going to be “poor” regardless of their ownership of a DVD player. The Heritage Foundation (lacking any sense of morality) sees physical possessions as the only benchmark of well-being, but I would argue that one can have just about everything and still live in poverty. (Bush comes to mind, as a brat from a good, comfortable home who clearly lacks sense, judgment, morality, compassion, intelligence….)

    The good State of Maryland is hacking back its education budget, and dumbing down its high school graduation standards. Tell me, somebody, that by doing so the governor and the politicians in Annapolis are not adding to the poverty of their state, no?

    The constitutional “pursuit of happiness” means more than the pursuit of a DVD player — Jay should learn that. It is a moral obligation to pursue an ethical life, which is tricky to do in the god-eat-dog Heritage Foundation world, a point President Roosevelt acknowledged way back a century ago. But the Heritage Hounds would like to strip away the advances of the last century and return to a pre-Lochner world of untamed capitalism in which Junior surely has a DVD player but also a useless education that keeps him forever on a minimum wage, trimmin hedges and moppin floors for the likes of Jay.

  11. Electric Bill

    We will all want to jump on the wagon with the radical right wing Heritage Foundation, that notorious hotbed of neo-cons. Whatever they say on any issue is so skewed to the far-out right, you can only get anything from it if you do opposites, whatever they say, just assume the opposite is true. The Heritage Foundation is a nest of fascist vipers who want to further the corporate takeover of America and do away with the Bill of Rights. I see poor people every day and they aren’t on a permanent vacation. Their lives mostly suck.