There's More to Poverty Than Just Money

As Washington fights about which benefits to cut for low-income families, the Heritage Foundation throws an assist by arguing – in typical conservative fashion – that poor people can’t be poor if they own consumer electronics and air conditioning:

[I]f 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. […]

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.

These things only qualify as “luxuries” if you assume a world where the poor are poor because of bad choices, and if you believe that poverty demands destitution (i.e. poor people aren’t allowed to feel pleasure). If you’re not starving in the streets, then as far as Heritage is concerned, you’re not really poor. Of course, in the world as it exists, poverty is most often the result of systemic factors – poor educational opportunities, depressed economies, institutionalized discrimination – and events that are beyond the control of most people: medical emergencies, job losses, and the various collection of difficulties that come with not having money.

Even if that weren’t the case, however, it’s still true that poverty is more than simple material deprivation. Adam Smith explains this best in The Wealth of Nations:

By necessaries I understand not only the commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life, but what ever the customs of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even the lowest order, to be without. A linen shirt, for example, is, strictly speaking, not a necessary of life. The Greeks and Romans lived, I suppose, very comfortably, though they had no linen. But in the present times, through the greater part of Europe, a creditable day-laborer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt, the want of which would be supposed to denote that disgraceful degree of poverty which, it is presumed, nobody can well fall into, without extreme bad conduct. Custom, in the same manner, has rendered leather shoes a necessary of life in England.

Even when poverty is a matter of relative deprivation, it’s still poverty, since a large part of poverty is navigating the shame of being poor. That a low-income parent springs for nice clothing for his child doesn’t mean that he’s irresponsible; it means that he wants his child to avoid the shame that comes with having poor-quality clothes. Likewise, a poor family might not need an XBox, but owning one allows them to avoid feelings of inadequacy when confronted with guests who aren’t poor.

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