Helping the Poor, Part 2

Last week we learned that, while a lot of people fall below the poverty line, that situation is often temporary. Also, while the poor don’t earn much by US standards, it’s still over $10,000 a year—plus government and other benefits. What does that buy you? Today I want to address what life under the poverty line is like.

Granted, it’s not fun being poor. Having fewer resources means you have fewer options—and the answer too often is “no.” Opportunities may be limited. Sometimes, things cost more for those who can least afford it—prices at stores in poor neighborhoods tend to be higher than in middle class areas, and you can’t afford to take advantage of items on sale or discounted in bulk. Add to that frustration—being poor typically correlates with reduced influence, both socially and politically. I’ve always imagined desperate families in cars, skinny, hungry children in ragged clothing, and crime-ridden neighborhoods.

However, I was surprised to learn that, according to the Census Bureau, over 80% of those living in poverty are “satisfied” with their housing situation—only slightly below the statistics for those not living in poverty. Moveover, 95% consider their home safe, and 88% feel safe in their neighborhood as well. This isn’t the image portrayed in the media!

I’d always assumed that poor schools in poor neighborhoods were one cause of chronic poverty. However, the bureau reports that most families are satisfied with their current school option(s) although many would prefer something different, given more choices.

Almost all poor households have at least one TV, and 83% have a VCR or other recorder to go with it. In fact, the average poor family “typically had cable or satellite TV, three color televisions, a DVD player, a VCR, and a video game system, such as an Xbox or Play Station,” according to one thought-provoking article. The family can be entertained in comfort, as 83% have air conditioning (granted, that’s a necessity in some areas).

Almost three-quarters of poor households report that they are “food secure,” which is curious given the number of TVs. However, you only need money (or a credit card) once to afford a TV while food is an ongoing issue, so maybe that explains it. In fact, socioeconomic status correlates with obesity. (Learn more about the “average American poor family” here.)

While all this sounds astounding, remember that not everyone living below the poverty level can afford these amenities. There are definitely those who lack the basic necessities of life. For example, if 75% of households have enough food, that leaves 25% for whom food is a major issue. And we’re all aware of the fact that homelessness affects not only single men, but also women and families. Whether their situation is temporary or chronic, we can and should do something to help. Immediate relief is a start while longer-term solutions are worked out. (I’ll get practical at the end of this series, I promise.)

Next month we’ll compare the American poor’s standard of living to that of poor people in the rest of the world.

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