Study misses what poverty is about

The Heritage Foundation released a report today about poverty that managed to get some traction in the media. There is nothing terribly new in the report; it is basically a statistically-rich rehashing of the idea that poor people are not really poor. The Heritage Foundation provides a long list of what are mainly cheap, consumer electronics, and then reports on what percentage of impoverished households have them. The suggestion is that America’s poor are actually living quite well because most of them have a television, coffee maker, air conditioning, and other similar amenities in their households.

The timing of this report is fairly suspect. All of the data in the figures is from 6 years ago which suggests that in addition to there being nothing new in the approach, there is also nothing new in the statistics. Of course, publishing a report like this right now makes sense politically as a background for a deficit reduction bill that is poised to take away trillions of dollars from the poor in the coming decade. If they are not really poor — as the Heritage Foundation suggests — then making them pay for the budget deficit must not be nearly as inhumane a policy as it sounds.

Responses to the arguments have been fairly limited. Derek Thompson at The Atlantic makes the point that although consumer electronics are getting cheaper, the more essential items like housing, food, health care, and education are getting much more expensive. A one-time purchase of a television set hardly makes up for the wage-eating rise in rents. Matthew Yglesias forwards a similar argument pointing out that although electronics are more accessible, “if you’re looking to live in a safe neighborhood with good public schools in a metropolitan area with decent job opportunities you’re going to find that this is quite expensive.”

These responses are worthwhile in demonstrating the absurdity of the Heritage Foundation’s selection of amenities to measure. However, they problematically rely on the same misconception that the harms of poverty are exclusively tied to some sort of objective material deprivation. Although being deprived of quality material goods is a big aspect of poverty — especially when talking about poverty in absolute terms — there are additional impacts of poverty that are just as damaging.

For instance, one of the most difficult aspects of living in poverty is being in a state of total instability. A family of three making $18,000 per year is always a single step away from total insolvency. If it is even possible for that family to find a place where they can make ends meet reliably, they will almost certainly accumulate no savings. They will live in a dangerous, run-down neighborhood with the threat of crime and violence always present — granted with a refrigerator and toaster in their apartment. Due to their scarce financial resources, any kind of disruption (e.g. an illness or a layoff) will leave them short on their bills, constantly in interest-accruing debt, and never certain whether this will be the month they get kicked out of their rental unit for failure to pay.

It is the utter terror and anxiety of that kind of life that is really the defining feature of poverty, and the reason why a moral society would be interested in doing whatever it takes to eradicate it. In the United States, it is not likely that someone will be so poor that they starve. They might be so poor that their food options leave them horribly unhealthy, but even the poorest in the society are typically able to find the absolute bare necessities to keep on living.

Debates about how much above those bare necessities should be considered legitimately poor completely miss the point. Having some index of goods does not make your life stable and secure, and consequently does not shield you from the psychological impacts of living in perpetual uncertainty about the next month’s expenses. That is what poverty is about, and that is why studies like those produced by the Heritage Foundation are so vacuous.