How much wealth do the poor in America have?

A new paper from the Heritage Foundation. (H/T Brett Kunkle)


Each year for the past two decades, the U.S. Census Bureau has reported that over 30 million Americans were living in “poverty.” In recent years, the Census has reported that one in seven Americans are poor. But what does it mean to be “poor” in America? How poor are America’s poor?

For most Americans, the word “poverty” suggests destitution: an inability to provide a family with nutritious food, clothing, and reasonable shelter. For example, the Poverty Pulse poll taken by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development asked the general public: “How would you describe being poor in the U.S.?” The overwhelming majority of responses focused on homelessness, hunger or not being able to eat properly, and not being able to meet basic needs.[1] That perception is bolstered by news stories about poverty that routinely feature homelessness and hunger.

Yet if poverty means lacking nutritious food, adequate warm housing, and clothing for a family, relatively few of the more than 30 million people identified as being “in poverty” by the Census Bureau could be characterized as poor.[2] While material hardship definitely exists in the United States, it is restricted in scope and severity. The average poor person, as defined by the government, has a living standard far higher than the public imagines.

As scholar James Q. Wilson has stated, “The poorest Americans today live a better life than all but the richest persons a hundred years ago.”[3] In 2005, the typical household defined as poor by the government had a car and air conditioning. For entertainment, the household had two color televisions, cable or satellite TV, a DVD player, and a VCR. If there were children, especially boys, in the home, the family had a game system, such as an Xbox or a PlayStation.[4] In the kitchen, the household had a refrigerator, an oven and stove, and a microwave. Other household conveniences included a clothes washer, clothes dryer, ceiling fans, a cordless phone, and a coffee maker.

The home of the typical poor family was not overcrowded and was in good repair. In fact, the typical poor American had more living space than the average European. The typical poor American family was also able to obtain medical care when needed. By its own report, the typical family was not hungry and had sufficient funds during the past year to meet all essential needs.

Poor families certainly struggle to make ends meet, but in most cases, they are struggling to pay for air conditioning and the cable TV bill as well as to put food on the table. Their living standards are far different from the images of dire deprivation promoted by activists and the mainstream media.

Regrettably, annual Census reports not only exaggerate current poverty, but also suggest that the number of poor persons[5] and their living conditions have remained virtually unchanged for four decades or more. In reality, the living conditions of poor Americans have shown significant improvement over time.

These are the people that the elites on the left are constantly making us feel guilty about. But keep in mind that it is very easy to avoid poverty in America. A person just has to make four decisions, as economist Walter Williams explains.


Avoiding long-term poverty is not rocket science. First, graduate from high school. Second, get married before you have children, and stay married. Third, work at any kind of job, even one that starts out paying the minimum wage. And, finally, avoid engaging in criminal behavior.

If you graduate from high school today with a B or C average, in most places in our country there’s a low-cost or financially assisted post-high-school education program available to increase your skills.

Most jobs start with wages higher than the minimum wage, which is currently $5.15. A man and his wife, even earning the minimum wage, would earn $21,000 annually. According to the Bureau of Census, in 2003, the poverty threshold for one person was $9,393, for a two-person household it was $12,015, and for a family of four it was $18,810. Taking a minimum-wage job is no great shakes, but it produces an income higher than the Bureau of Census’ poverty threshold. Plus, having a job in the first place increases one’s prospects for a better job.

The Children’s Defense Fund and civil rights organizations frequently whine about the number of black children living in poverty. In 1999, the Bureau of the Census reported that 33.1 percent of black children lived in poverty compared with 13.5 percent of white children. It turns out that race per se has little to do with the difference. Instead, it’s welfare and single parenthood. When black children are compared to white children living in identical circumstances, mainly in a two-parent household, both children will have the same probability of being poor.

How much does racial discrimination explain? So far as black poverty is concerned, I’d say little or nothing, which is not to say that every vestige of racial discrimination has been eliminated. But let’s pose a few questions. Is it racial discrimination that stops black students from studying and completing high school? Is it racial discrimination that’s responsible for the 68 percent illegitimacy rate among blacks?

The 1999 Bureau of Census report might raise another racial discrimination question. Among black households that included a married couple, over 50 percent were middle class earning above $50,000, and 26 percent earned more than $75,000. How in the world did these black families manage not to be poor? Did America’s racists cut them some slack?

In America, poverty is self-inflicted. But that doesn’t mean that the Democrats don’t help the poor to stay poor.

Democrats wants to raise minimum wage, which promotes higher unemployment among younger workers – and more dependence on government programs. They want to subsidize single motherhood and enact no-fault divorce laws, to destroy marriage. And they want to push gay history and green propaganda in the public schools, to diminish the economic value of a high school education. They don’t want the poor to lift themselves out of poverty so that they are independent of government. Redistribution of wealth makes Democrats feel good about themselves – so they need the poor to stay poor. Democrats take money from the wealthy, causing them not to hire workers, and then give that money to the poor, so that they don’t need to work for anything.

7 thoughts on “How much wealth do the poor in America have?”

  1. You had me right up until the last paragraph, but I will get back to that. My wife has to work with a lot of “poor” people and the one thing she notes is they all have cell phones and designer clothes while always asking for prescriptions for antacid ($.99 at the dollar store) and for letters to force the electric company to keep the power on (there are rules that govern this such as if you need electric for certain medical devices or there’s an infant in the household, etc). Additionally she notes how demanding they are with this and if she refuses they will claim it’s their right and she must give those things to them and when she wont, they just move on to another doctor and almost always finds one who agrees.

    As for the last paragraph, there is a reason the minimum wage was established and you might benefit from researching it. The rest, I mostly agree with you. If you’re healthy enough to have kids, you’re healthy enough to work. Gay history is just riduculous. Green, I disagree with you there, but that’s minor in the overall picture. I think your use of redistribution of wealth is just FUD and since the reds have been overusing it so much they’ve turned the crowd under 30 according to a Rasmussen pole to like the idea of socialism (that’s what the GOP gets when they misuse the word, it starts to sound appealing)

      1. While I understand and thoroughly agree that raising the minimum wage increases unemployment, I’m not sure your statement was accurate:

        “Democrats wants to raise minimum wage, IN ORDER TO promote higher unemployment among younger workers.”

        Do democrats actually intend to promote higher unemployment among younger workers? Or is that a certain but unintended consequence?

        (By the way, you said, “A person just has to make three decisions”, but he first paragraph that follows lists four: 1) Graduate, 2) marry, 3) work, and 4) avoid criminal behavior.)

      2. they only agree on a small subset of the population. But you still didn’t read my comment fully. What would stop the business groups from just paying .25 cents an hour? When one does it, you know many others will follow and there would be no reason not to as it would increase corporate profits (which is what the board is legally required to do). The lack of minimums is the entire reason that the unions got a foothold and remove a minimum will only serve to strengthen them

        1. Very simple. The free market makes sure that people get what they are worth in salary, because so long as there is competition, there is the threat of the employee leaving. If wages get too low, more people just start up their own businesses. Minimum wages are an example of price controls. No economist worth his salt believes in price controls. We need to get you Thomas Sowell’s “Basic Economics”. I would get it for you as a gift, but you are so darn busy.

          1. You know that’s not true since what you’re talking about is pure, true economic model – something that doesn’t exist. When economists put out their theories its in the context of 100% rational being with no colusion – that doesn’t exist in the real world. If just a couple of businesses collude to lower wages, everyone else will follow and the average worker won’t be able to leave and get a better paying job as no jobs will pay good. We saw this happen around the turn of the nineteenth century and it was the reason unions were needed.

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