Are Poor People in America Really Poor?

by Neal Frankle, CFP ®

Have you ever stopped to ask yourself what you really know about the poor people in America? I know I never have. Are most poor people homeless? Are most poor people hungry? I’m not proud of saying this, but I never stopped to consider it. A few months ago I read an editorial in Investor’s Business Daily that discusses this issue, and I found it fascinating.

The article referenced the Heritage Foundation, which publishes government data on American poverty. Here are the facts about America’s poor according to the Heritage Foundation:

  • Most have air conditioners and cable TV
  • They are well housed
  • They have a steady supply of food and access to medical attention
  • 99.6% have refrigerators
  • 97.7% have televisions, stoves and ovens
  • 81.4% own microwave ovens
  • 78.3% have air conditioners

These numbers are very close to those enjoyed by all U.S. households. True, they’re not using these amenities in estate-sized homes, but they’re not living in tin huts either. According to Heritage, poor people in the United States have (on average) more living space than the average European non-poor person.

Interested in learning more about poor people in the United States?

  • 65% have more than one TV
  • 64% own a DVD player
  • 54% have a cell phone
  • 48% have a coffee maker (I don’t have one yet)
  • 38% own a computer
  • 29% have internet, and the same percentage have video game systems.

What does this mean?

America still has a huge poverty problem. We need to do a better job. Too many people go hungry at night, don’t have proper education or a roof over their heads. But it’s probably a smaller number than we imagine. And having read this report I came up with a few questions of my own. Is it possible that the people who really go without do so because we define too many as poor? Are we using our resources to help those who may not really need our help at the expense of those who really do? Maybe most of our poor simply need to learn how to make more money and be incentivized correctly.

Most of our “poor” are actually doing better than middle class citizens of other wealthy countries. True, the poor don’t have the life they dream of, and they don’t live in the neighborhoods they ultimately want to live in. But the question is, do we really think it’s a good use of resources to target this group with more benefits? When you consider that doing so comes at the direct expense of those who may really be desperate for help they aren’t getting, does it change your answer?

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Hassan June 19, 2013 at 7:59 AM

This is just an article that can only fly with people that haven’t been outside the country. America doesn’t provide the best living standard among wealthiest country. Yeah its probably top 20 percent when it comes to living standards but Western Europe, Australia, and many other countries have ok living standards. Not everybody is starving.

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Tom April 15, 2012 at 9:43 AM

Sarah, Poor YOU, your a victim. Try reading the constitution and get a grip on reality. Oh, by the way, maybe you should look again at your idealistic European lifestyle. Can you say riots, unemployment, hopelessness. Why? Socialism creates class warfare and virtually unproductive members of society. Lincoln said it best, you can’t do for others what they could and should do for themselves. Perpetual hand-outs create an entitlement state and strips a persons pride and dignity.
Let’s take more of what you have, better yet why don’t you share all you have so you can feel better, and set an example.
Good Luck Sarah.

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Sarah April 12, 2012 at 9:25 AM

That is patently ridiculous as a way to understand the devastation Americans are facing since the ’08 depression that has ravaged this country (and will continue to do so) and millions and millions of its people. This is just the totally diversionary and inherently dishonest garbage of the immoral, capitalists in this country–that is to say, those wealthy elites who run this country and control our government. It’s the result of their brainwashing. And speaking of Europeans, the quality of life of your average, western European is much better than the hardship life most live in this country.

I think that is an embarrassing article and frankly just shows how insular and out of touch the people of this remote, often backward thinking country are.

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Ronald Dodge December 15, 2011 at 12:10 AM

Getting an education is not a guarantee. It certainly helps, but doesn’t guarantee you won’t be in hard times. Hecks, I already racked up 262 quarter hours worth in the Accounting field only to NOT have that degree as a result of schools forcing me to repeat those courses of not accepting from other schools, even though it’s all the same material and it’s no different from what I learned before. They wouldn’t let me test out of such courses either under the claim that it’s part of the major.

What got me through was not my higher education, but rather my skills with the software side of computers. As for our family of 7, we are definitely under the poverty line, but yet, we still have been able to do things. The only real expense I have spend on entertainment is the $16.00 per week for one night of bowling. As for the internet connection, some may say that’s a luxury or an entertainment expense, I look at it as more of a finance expense cause I use the internet to do a lot of my finance tracking and record into Excel. Having done so, it has actually saved me a lot of money in numerous ways. As such, the internet connection and computer system more or less is paid for via the financial savings I been able to get from the financial planning and tracking I do within Excel.

As such, it’s a matter of priorities, what are your objectives, and how you go about accomplishing those objectives with what you have to work with.

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Jerry December 11, 2011 at 2:33 PM

There is also a poverty mindset and it leads to people never trying to truly better their situation. Getting an education is, I think, ultimately the best insurance for someone staying out of poverty.

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Neal Frankle December 8, 2011 at 9:14 PM

@Karyn — That is just awesome. I am proud of you for not buying into the lie. You make choices and you have priorities. Nothing wrong with that.

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karyn December 8, 2011 at 4:56 PM

My family is considered poor based on the poverty line, mostly because we’re a single income family with five children. But while I consider myself frugal, I don’t feel poor. I’m able to stay home with the kids, we have two vehicles (old, but two of them), a comfortable house, internet, and my kids have piano lessons and sports. And when I start whining about money, I try to remember the families I met in Soviet Ukraine or the children we sponsor that are in need of medical care and food. Then I can’t complain. I’m glad you brought up this point.

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Jake from Debt Sucks December 8, 2011 at 1:40 AM

Better question – what is “poor?” Since they used the word “poverty,” I’m guessing they based their data on the government poverty line. I’m well above said line, and while I wouldn’t call myself poor, I don’t consider myself to be middle class, either.

Point being, I’ve got about 5 computers, 4 televisions, 2 air conditioners, and an Xbox 360 that are solely mine. Yet no car. Priorities!

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