CNN Newsroom

Poverty in America: If Poor People Own 'Luxury' Items, Are They Really Poor?

Dave Schechter

CNN Senior National Editor

I recently toured an exhibit of photographs that included Depression-era works by Walker Evans and Margaret Bourke-White. Their photographs – including a family standing on the porch of a shack and African-Americans flood victims lined up to receive food and clothing in front of a billboard promising prosperity – present a visual image of how decades later many Americans still define poverty.

As Congress and the White House engaged in heated debate over the cost of government, the Heritage Foundation, a D.C. think tank with a perspective favored by political conservatives, threw a log on the fire with a report provocatively titled: “Air Conditioning, Cable TV, and an Xbox: What is Poverty in the United States Today?” that could be interpreted as suggesting that certain items in their homes should disqualify them from being considered as living in poverty.

“As Congress struggles to find a way to cut spending as part of raising the $14 trillion debt ceiling, they should take a close look at the more than $1 trillion spent every year on welfare. You’ll be surprised to learn that many of the 30 million Americans defined as “poor” and in need of government assistance aren’t quite what you’d expect — rather than homeless and on the streets, the average poor American household has luxuries like air conditioning, cable TV, and Xbox video game consoles,” a summary of the Heritage Foundation report reads.

The Heritage report states: “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.”

Needless to say, not everyone concurs with the Heritage Foundation’s conclusions. “The implicit assumption is that they’re spending money on the wrong things. . . . The implicit assumption is that the poor shouldn’t have those things,” said Marybeth J. Mattingly, who directs research on vulnerable families at The Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. Mattingly credits the Heritage Foundation for acknowledging that America’s poor today live better than their predecessors in earlier generations and better than the poor in other nations, but suggests that different conclusions can be drawn from the same data.

Mattingly worries about how inferences drawn from the Heritage Foundation report might play into policy debates about government assistance for the poor. “It is clear that people are relying on these programs,” she said, noting the recent report detailing a growing gap between the income of the wealthiest and the poorest Americans.

How the U.S. government determines what constitutes poverty is controversial. I’ve written before about the need to update a formula that was created using data from 1955.

Back in 1995 a panel of the National Research Council concluded that “The official poverty measure in the United States is flawed and does not adequately inform policy-makers or the public about who is poor and who is not poor.” Alternatives using more up-to-date criteria have been proposed but not adopted for official use, so touchy are the political ramifications of a change in defining who is poor.

The existing formula determined that in 2009 14.3 percent of the population - 1-in-7 Americans - lived below the line that made them eligible for federal assistance. For 2011, the federal poverty guideline for a family of four in the continental United States is a household income of $22,350 (slightly higher in Alaska and Hawaii).

Using 2005 data from the Department of Energy on residential energy consumption (the most recent available), the Heritage Foundation compared the percentage of all U.S. households with “various amenities” with the percentage of poor U.S. households with those same items.

The online version of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines an amenity as “something that conduces to comfort, convenience, or enjoyment.” The same online dictionary defines poverty as “the state of one who lacks a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions,” which certainly leaves plenty of room for discussion.

“According to the government’s own survey data, in 2005, the average household defined as poor by the government lived in a house or apartment equipped with air-conditioning and cable TV. The family had a car (a third of the poor have two or more cars). For entertainment, the household had two color televisions, a DVD player, and a VCR,” the Heritage Foundation report reads.

In order, the top five items for both the population and a whole and those classified as poor were: a refrigerator, television, stove and oven, microwave and air-conditioning.

What about a personal computer? The Energy Department data held that 68 percent of Americans in 2005 had a personal computer, but only 38 percent of those classified as poor. The data also held that 27.5 percent of all American households had a big screen television, but just shy of 18 percent those classified as poor did, as well. At the bottom of both lists, for those curious, was a jacuzzi, found in 6 percent of all households but only .6 percent of those classified as poor.

Given the brutal heat wave that afflicted much of the country in recent weeks, causing numerous deaths, defining air-conditioning as a luxury seems a sure way to start an argument. What about cable TV or an Xbox video game system?

Mattingly pointed out that, particularly in rural America, cars are necessary to reach a job and that having more than one car does not mean that all are in working order. An Xbox system or other entertainment options at home may ensure that a child plays at home rather than venturing out into neighborhoods that may not be safe. A computer with Internet access increasingly is critical for children and adults to take advantage of educational opportunities or to access social services. Appliances, such as a microwave or clothes washer, may be owned by a landlord and not by the resident of a house or apartment.