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The poor may have appliances, but that doesn't mean they're living 'the good life'

Stephanie Otto knows poverty. She lived it for the best part of 12 years. Otto, 36, of Medford, grew up in Roseburg in a two-parent family that always had enough but found herself struggling financially as a single parent in her 20s.

She got food stamps. Her kids had health coverage provided by the state, but she had none.

If she got sick she went to a hospital emergency room. She had no dental or vision coverage.

"It was hard," she says. "Not knowing what was next."

Her son, now 12, and her daughter, now 5, both went to Head Start for two years, which Otto says gave the kids not only a leg up on kindergarten but valuable social skills. It also helped her cope.

"I couldn't afford day care," she says. "While they were in school four hours I'd get the housework done."

Heritage Foundation, take note.

A new report from the conservative think tank, "Air Conditioning, Cable TV, and an Xbox: What is Poverty in the United States Today?," paints a rosy picture of poverty in the United States. Not in the sense that there's less of it, but by trying to make a case that the poor have a pretty sweet thing going.

The report marshals statistics to demonstrate the felicity of a life of poverty, most of it having to do with electrical appliances. For example:

  • 99.6 percent of the poor have refrigerators.
  • 81.4 percent have microwave ovens.
  • 29.3 percent have Internet service.

Otto was recently married, both she and her husband work, and her family income is above the poverty line for the first time in years. They pay $933 a month for a three-bedroom, one bathroom apartment and about $250 a month for utilities. The landlord provides a refrigerator and a range, and she has a microwave oven. The family's TV set is "a little old box."

H.L. Mencken once said journalists should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. We've pretty much turned that upside down and backwards as a society these days, as witness the recent debt limit deal, which preserved the Bush tax cuts for the richest Americans while ensuring more cuts in what's left of the safety net for the poorest Americans.

With everybody from tea partyers to corporate Republicans to CNN to President Obama eager to comfort the comfortable, somebody had to remember to afflict the afflicted. Into the breech leapt Heritage, which never shrinks from piling on the poor, who it seems now have the nerve to own clothes washers (62 percent of them) and dryers (53.2 percent).

The report is a wilful tuning out. This sort of thing isn't new. The disconnect between the well-off and the poor has been around a long time.

When the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century brought a new kind of wealth — and a new kind of poverty — to England, Benjamin Disraeli wrote of "two nations, between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy, who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were ... Inhabitants of different planets."

That still sounds right. You don't hear much about the poor these days. Ronald Reagan proved politicians didn't have to worry about them. Americans living in poverty don't call politicians' dance tunes, aren't big donors, don't have lobbyists, and are so disillusioned that many don't even bother to vote.

Reagan reinvented Lyndon Johnson's "war on poverty" as an attack on the poor. Portraying them as lazy ingrates and recycling cruel, welfare-queen stereotypes, he began the dismantling of the safety net that has continued to this day, not only under Republicans but under Bill Clinton in the '90s. And now the (originally temporary) Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans have apparently had an apotheosis and become sacred.

Enter Heritage, assuring us there's no need to worry.

"Advocacy groups," the report says, "often equate official poverty with hunger, malnutrition and hopelessness." But most of the poor "are not poor in any ordinary sense of the term. The overwhelming majority ... have air conditioning, cable TV and a host of other modern amenities. They are well-housed, have an adequate and reasonably steady supply of food and have met their other basic needs, including medical care."

There's some truth in that, but the conclusions are mean-spirited and shallow. It's not the 1930s, when poverty often meant no food and no plumbing. Living in a rental neighborhood in America with no savings and a cranky car and having a "reasonably steady supply of food" might be just a paycheck from the street, but it's not like living in a tarpaper shanty outside Guatemala City and scavenging at the dump.

But it takes a heap of disingenuity to conflate that microwave ($10 at a yard sale) and air-conditioning (78.3 percent of the poor have it) with anything like the kind of life middle-class Americans enjoy. Most of the gewgaws Heritage lists have become ubiquitous and cheap (electricity and telephones were seen as symbols of affluence in the 1930s). And many of them are owned by the landlord. And the fact that 7 out of 10 poor kids have no Internet access, that's not a problem?

With a little help over the years, Otto got by and kept her family together. Now she and her husband envision college for the kids. But for many, the road is getting harder and harder.

In 2001, 11.7 percent of Americans lived in poverty. In 2005 it was 12.6 percent, in 2009 14.3 percent. That's a 22 percent increase in the Bush years, to more than 43 million Americans and counting. Much is made of the fact that the U.S. has the poorest access to medical care of any rich nation. But at least there's one thing in which we're number one. We now lead the industrialized world in the percent of people living in poverty.

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. If you have comments or suggested topics for this column, please send them to rogueviewpoint@gmail.com.