I’ve had the good fortune to have been able to travel extensively as a function of my career. I’ve seen beauty – Paris in the spring and Vienna at Christmas. I’ve visited the shores of Lake Geneva and Lake Como. I have seen the excess of the Emirates – Dubai and Abu Dhabi. I have also seen ugliness, I’ve seen the abject poverty and deprivation of the slums of Bangkok, New Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai.
I’ve seen truly poor people, people who are living off a bowl of rice a day, and in India – I’ve seen poor souls picking through garbage heaps to find food or just for something that they can sell to survive (if you have seen Slumdog Millionaire, the scenes with the orphans picking through the garbage and being used by thugs as a beggars are real).
I’ve long held the opinion that the poor in America are not “poor”. We have come to a point of such plenty in this country that the number one problem of the “poor” in the US is obesity. Being poor in America has come to mean that the “poor” person only has one car, one cell phone, 2 TVs and basic cable.
James Taranto writes in The New Face of ‘Poverty’: How economic freedom spreads the wealth around (in Friday’s Wall Street Journal):
In 1990 the Heritage Foundation put out a report titled “How ‘Poor’ Are America’s Poor?” Not very, concluded author Robert Rector:
“Poor” Americans today are better housed, better fed, and own more property than did the average U.S. citizen throughout much of the 20th Century. In 1988, the per capita expenditures of the lowest income fifth of the U.S. population exceeded the per capita expenditures of the median American household in 1955, after adjusting for inflation.”
Among “the persons whom the Census Bureau identifies as ‘poor,’ ” 38% were homeowners. Among “poor” households, 62% owned a car, 14% two or more cars, nearly half had air-conditioning, and 31% had microwave ovens. “Nationwide, some 22,000 ‘poor’ households have heated swimming pools or Jacuzzis.”
One thing only rich people had back in 1990, though, was portable telephones. That’s changed, hasn’t it? If you’re reading this column, you very likely have a cellular phone. You may even be reading this column on your cellular phone.
But cellphones aren’t just ubiquitous. In what the New York Times calls “a strange twist,” they’ve become symbols of poverty. Arkansas and Mississippi, those perennial economic laggards, “find themselves at the top of a new state ranking: They have the highest concentrations of people in the nation who have abandoned landlines in favor of cellular phones.”
“There appear to be many reasons for this,” the Times writes:
Cellular phones have become more affordable. The barrier to owning one is lower with pay-as-you-go plans. Some states allow subsidies for low-income residents to be applied to wireless bills. And increasingly, those who cannot afford both types of phones choose their cellular phone.
The irony here is too obvious to escape even the Times, which notes that “it is, of course, a long way from the days when cellphones belonged exclusively to wealthy business people.”
This is not to say that being poor in America is a life to desire, nor is is a life to be celebrated but, as with many subjects these days, context matters. When we conservatives are constantly barraged with the lies that we just “want to starve the poor and give tax cuts to the rich” (since the lower 47% don’t pay taxes, it is a logical impossibility to give them a tax “cut”), it quickly becomes evident that it is hard to debate hyperbole. An honest debate would start with defining what it really means to be “poor” in America.