The federal government now considers a family of four
in New York City to be poor if its pre-tax income is below
$37,900. Even with full medical coverage.
The calculation helps explain why newly revised Census
Bureau figures hike the number of poor Americans to 49
million as of last year, further widening an already yawning
gap between ordinary perceptions of poverty and how
the government sees it.
This breathtaking number begs the question: What does
it mean to be "poor" in the United States?
To the average American, the word "poverty" means
significant material hardship and need. It means lack of a
warm, dry home, recurring hunger and malnutrition, no
medical care, worn-out clothes for the children. The mainstream
media reinforce this view: The typical tv news story
on poverty features a homeless family with kids living in
the back of a van.
But poverty as the federal government defines it differs
greatly from these images. Only 2 percent of the official
poor are homeless. According to the government's own data,
the typical poor family lives in a house or apartment that's
not only in good repair but is larger than the homes of the
average non-poor person in England, France or Germany.
The typical "poor" American experiences no material
hardships, receives medical care whenever needed, has
an ample diet and wasn't hungry for even a single day the
previous year. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture,
the nutritional quality of the diets of poor children
is identical to that of upper middle-class kids.
In America, about 80 percent of poor families have air
conditioning, nearly two thirds have cable or satellite tv,
half have a computer and a third have a wide-screen lcd or
All these government statistics were based on the Census
Bureau's old definition of poverty. The new definition,
released last week, stretches that gap between common
sense and government perspectives even further.
Previously, a family of four was considered poor if cash
income was less than $22,800. ... Now, a family of four
with full medical insurance, living in Oakland, can be considered
"poor" if its yearly pre-tax income is below $42,500.
In Washington, D.C., the figure is $40,300; in Boston,
$39,500; in New York, $37,900.
Remarkably, for the first time these new poverty thresholds
are linked to an "escalator" that will boost them faster
than inflation year after year. ...
The goal of fighting poverty is no longer about meeting
physical needs; instead it has been covertly shifted to
equalizing incomes, or "spreading the wealth." Divorced
from actual living conditions, the new government report
on "poverty" is merely
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