February 24, 2012
“I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs a repair, I’ll fix it.”
Thus did Mitt Romney supposedly commit the gaffe of the month—for we are not to speak of the poor without unctuous empathy.
Yet, as Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation reports in “Understanding Poverty in the United States: Surprising Facts About America’s Poor,” Mitt was more right about America’s magnanimity than those who bewail her alleged indifference.
First, who are the poor?
To qualify, a family of four in 2010 needed to earn less than $22,314. Some 46 million Americans, 15 percent of the population, qualified.
And in what squalor were America’s poor forced to live?
Well, 99 percent had a refrigerator and stove, two-thirds had a plasma TV, a DVD player and access to cable or satellite, 43 percent were on the Internet, half had a video game system like PlayStation or Xbox.
Three-fourths of the poor had a car or truck, nine in 10 a microwave, 80 percent had air conditioning. In 1970, only 36 percent of the U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.
America’s poor enjoy amenities almost no one had in the 1950s, when John K. Galbraith described us as “The Affluent Society.”
What about homelessness? Are not millions of America’s poor on the street at night, or shivering in shelters or crowded tenements?
Well, actually, no. That is what we might call televised poverty. Of the real poor, fewer than 10 percent live in trailers, 40 percent live in apartments, and half live in townhouses or single-family homes.
Forty-one percent of poor families own their own home.
But are they not packed in like sardines, one on top of another?
Not exactly. The average poor person’s home in America has 1,400 square feet—more living space than do Europeans in 23 of the 25 wealthiest countries on the continent.
Two-thirds of America’s poor have two rooms per person, while 94 percent have at least one room per person in the family dwelling.
Only one in 25 poor persons in America uses a homeless shelter, and only briefly, sometime during the year.
What about food? Do not America’s poor suffer chronically from malnutrition and hunger?