How Many Poor People In America? Heritage Foundation Says Damn Few.

Seems that the Heritage Foundation has dusted off some old rhetoric and shaped some new data to fit it. Thus it proclaims, much as it did in 2007, that “many of the 30 million Americans defined as ‘poor’ and in need of government assistance” are actually doing very nicely, thank you.

First, a word of clarification. The reference to 30 million is just sloppy blogging. The Foundation’s actual report says “over 30 million.” Technically accurate, but minimizing. The latest Census Bureau income and poverty report tell us that there were nearly 43.6 million people in poverty in 2009.

As I (and many others) have written before, this figure is based on a rather primitive and woefully outdated measure, i.e., the inflation-adjusted cost of what used to be the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s cheapest meal plan.

The Census Bureau is developing an alternative measure based on recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences.

But the Heritage Foundation doesn’t care for that — indeed, has delivered its latest blast in part to argue (again) that the new measure is a sneaky scheme by the Obama administration to advance a “spread the wealth” agenda.

Its main goal, however, is to give aid and comfort to Republicans in Congress who want to slash spending on public benefits.

As with the House budget plan and Congressman Paul Ryan’s defense thereof, the Foundation aims to foster to view that they’re now going to people who aren’t “truly in need.”

Also apparently to gain currency for the Republican Study Committee’s uniquely expansive view of “welfare.”

As in 2007, the Foundation makes a big deal of the results of a 2005 survey the U.S. Energy Department conducted to find out, among other things, what energy-consuming appliances and other equipment different types of households had.

The Foundation calculated a median average for what it calls “household amenities” in households below the federal poverty line. This becomes “the typical poor household” — a slippery piece of rhetoric, I think.

The household had a lot of “amenities” — not just refrigerators, stoves and the like, but a washer and dryer, two color TVs and more. Not, however, a personal computer, unless there were children in the family, or an internet connection, even if there were.

Still, it’s certainly the case that lots of poor households have “modern conveniences” that were unaffordable to the middle class some years ago. A main reason, as Derek Thompson at The Atlantic shows, is that productivity increases have made consumer electronics extremely cheap.

Not the case for basic necessities like housing. Well, the Heritage Foundation has something to say about that too.

“Poor Americans,” it asserts, “are well housed and rarely overcrowded.” In fact, they’ve got more space than the average European — a dubious shorthand for the average resident of a major city like Paris or London.

Moreover, “nearly all the houses and apartments of the poor are in good condition.” This, the numbers show, means that “only” 12% have moderate or severe physical problems.

The Foundation constructs its rosy picture from the reported results of a national survey conducted for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2009.

I find some of the relevant data difficult to parse. And, frankly, there are good reasons, in this report as well as others, to mistrust the Foundation’s analyses.

But say, for the sake of argument, that it’s reporting the housing data accurately. What do they tell us?

One important thing, I think, is that federal housing assistance programs are working, though not so well as they might.

For example, HUD requires public housing authorities to ensure that vouchers are used to help pay rental costs only for units that “meet minimum standards of health and safety.” And it charges them with determining the appropriate unit size “based on family size and composition.”

This could help explain the relatively low percent of houses and apartments with more than minimal physical problems. The fact that vouchers enable recipients to rent in the private market could explain more, e.g., the high percentage of poor households with air conditioning.

The Foundation handles homelessness and hunger in similar ways. It uses reports issued by federal agencies and highlights the relatively few Americans in the worst-case categories.

The figures, it says, show that the Census Bureau, news media and “liberal advocacy groups” are misleading the American public. True poverty, it claims, means “serious material deprivation.” And, by its showing, there’s not much of that.

Does it follow then that Congress should slash federal safety net spending? The Heritage Foundation clearly thinks so. But the argument it’s constructed is built on a hill of sand.

We don’t have vast numbers of people living on the streets or literally starving to death because we’ve decided that public assistance in the richest country in the world should meet basic human needs.

Our safety net doesn’t do this as well as it should. We see this even in the Foundation’s data points.

But if we backtrack, as it all but recommends, we’ll surely have millions more Americans who meet its willfully minimizing definition of poverty.

UPDATE: As the above indicates, I was suspicious of the Heritage Foundation’s uses of survey data, but I didn’t have the in-depth knowledge to identify specific ways it was manipulating them.

I’ve just come upon a letter from two organizations that do — the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association and the National Association for State Community Services Programs.

They confirm the point I made in my followup posting, i.e., that a number of the “amenities” the Foundation cites are included in rental units, not purchased by the households. They also identify some other considerations it overlooks and what seem to be out-and-out errors.

The Foundation nevertheless has just trotted out the same argument to discount the Census Bureau’s new poverty data. This, I think, is further evidence that it’s not a responsible research organization.


10 Responses to How Many Poor People In America? Heritage Foundation Says Damn Few.

  1. Thanks, as always, Kathryn, for your insights. A few comments…

    First, the only thing I disagree with is “the argument it’s constructed is built on a hill of sand.” I’d suggest a hill of manure. The assertion of ivory tower “experts” that all is well with the income-challenged in America reeks.

    Having traveled backroads of this country extensively for the past 6 years and having worked with poor and homeless persons for over a quarter century, I vehemently disagree with their position that poor people in America have it good.

    Poverty, as you point out, is far more rampant than HF admits. And the feds’ owning up to their (lack of) role in this surging predicament and their inability to accurately quantify it is business-as-usual.

    Housing stock in non-urban America is pathetic. What passes for “safe” according to HUD is frightening. Households beholden to HUD and their landlords risk homelessness when they complain about substandard housing.

    Communities across the land could count millions of families having “hard times.” We don’t quantify that, but we should. And we should listen to what that means…which is what I try to do with HEAR US Inc.,, my nonprofit giving voice and visibility to homeless kids. The HF scrooges and bungling bureaucrats would do well to listen to these pint-sized homelessness experts in this 4-min. preview of “My Own Four Walls.” ( They tell the story. Someone better listen.

  2. Kathryn Baer says:

    No argument from me on the extent of poverty, Diane, or the hardships poor people are struggling with. I do, however, think we should draw a bright white line between the Census Bureau’s poverty measure, which it’s trying to improve, and the Heritage Foundation’s data manipulations. These aim to undermine the Census Bureau’s work and, as I (and others) argue, to justify deep cuts in public assistance programs.

  3. […] focus makes sense because, as my own critique notes, the Foundation makes a big deal of those electronic […]

  4. […] civil rights columnist for the Washington DC Examiner, takes on the Heritage Foundation’s dismissive report on poverty in […]

  5. […] Forbes, civil rights columnist for the Washington DC Examiner, takes on the Heritage Foundation’s dismissive report on poverty in […]

  6. […] This figure comes from the arch-conservative Heritage Foundation — a not always reliable source. The RSC is also indebted to the Foundation for its uniquely expansive definition of […]

  7. […] the surveys include not only food, “damp free” housing and the like, but some of those amenities the far-right Heritage Foundation cites to trash on our poverty measure — and our public […]

  8. Walt says:

    We should help those that really need help like the emotionally troubled and the disabled. But many of those who get government assistance created their own troubles by using drugs, alcohol and having babies by multiple fathers and not willing to work hard or by criminal activity of various kinds. That covers 95% of the U.S.A. citizens.

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