The “Poor Aren’t Really Poor” Canard

Posted by Bob Lord

My friends Thucky and Dang offer insight into the way conservatives view the world. Although I believe the "pundits" who develop many of the conservative talking points don't really believe the crap they spew, I suspect the conservative masses do. So it's an interesting exercise (sometimes) to explore their thoughts. 

My last post, Inequality: Reversing The Trend, prompted ole Thuck to trot out what I'll refer to as the "Poor Aren't Really Poor" canard. Here it is, courtesy of Thuck, in all its splendor:

The typical poor person in America has a flat screen tv, cable, air conditioning, a cell phone and an automobile. Immoral? You can live well if you are poor and if you are rich but it is cheaper if you are poor and you have a luxury the rich do not have: time. 

It's hard to know where to start with this one and there's a lot to dissect, but let's go about it in the same order Thucky chose. Who exactly is the "typical poor person?" Does he live in a tenement in the South Bronx, a hovel in Appalachia, a trailer in rural Nevada, a shack in Mississippi, or somewhere on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation? Or is he homeless on the streets of L.A. or Miami?

Perhaps the better question would be who exactly is the "typical poor person" the conservatives have in mind when they trot this out?

Okay, let's say we've somehow identified the "typical poor person." Now what about that flat screen? Let's say the poor person splurged and paid $400 for the flat screen, which supposedly is a trapping of wealth. Televisions last a long time, like a decade or so. So what is that flat screen costing? About one dollar per week. Yes, you need cable these days to get programs on a flat screen, so those "typical poor" also subscribe to cable. A basic cable package costs a little more than a dollar per day. 

So, those profligate poor are spending eight or nine bucks a week on flat screens and cable. Should we consider that extravagant, such that we need not be concerned for their welfare and can consider them to "live well"? Before answering that one, consider how we'd feel about a poor family that didn't buy a flat screen and subscribe to cable, but did subscribe to the daily paper. Would anyone conclude that a poor family was living well becuase they read the newspaper? Of course not. But the cost of that daily paper is roughly the same as the cost of television. And most Americans get their information from television these days. Yes, the television doubles as a source of entertainment, but it's often the sole source of entertainment for a poor family. And, by the way, since that poor family already is subscribing to cable, for the additional cost of a cheap dekstop, they can have internet access, which, among other things, would allow the children to do schoolwork. 

Does the "typical" poor person have air conditioning? In all likelihood, the typical Phoenix poor person does. Ditto for poor people in the Las Vega and Tucson areas. But is that "living well" as Thucky implies, or just surviving? Seems like air conditioning in Phoenix in the summer is the equivalent of having heat in Boston in the winter. Sorry, but having air conditioning in hot climate or heatng in cold climate just doesn't rise to the level of living well.

Stop here for a second and consider how much less persuasive the first sentence of Thucky's quote would be if it read:

The typical poor person in America has a newspaper subscription, home heating, a cell phone and an automobile. 

Moving on. Cell Phones? They're no doubt a great convenience, but we're talking about basic communication tools here. Being able to tell your spouse you're running late hardly means your living well. The reality here is that the world has moved from landlines and pay phones to cell phones. The fact that the poor have had to adapt does not mean they're living well.

That leaves car ownership, the last in Thucky's list of what he considers the trappings of wealth. Truth is, the "typical" poor person doesn't own a car. Those folks who were stuck in New Orleans when Katrina hit mostly were carless. The folks you see waiting for buses in the Phoenix heat? Carless. However, some poor people do own cars, subject to car loans of course. And the car loans those poor people had to take out to purchase their cars often are at loan shark rates. Do poor people borrow at loan shark rates in order to buy crappy, used cars so they can "live well." No, they do that so they can get to their low end jobs and make their monthly rent payments. 

Do the poor really have the luxury of more time than the rich? No. Some poor people are unemployed, but some rich people are coupon clippers who don't work. But the working rich have a clear luxury that the working poor do not: They have jobs that carry rewards other than compensation. I routinely have days in my work as a lawyer when I lose track of the time and sheepishly call my wife to tell her I'll be home late. Does a ditch digger or a Walmart worker ever have that problem? I doubt it. 

The analysis I've gone through here really isn't rocket science. Why, then, would Thucky so easily buy into the "poor aren't really poor" canard? I don't know for sure, but my guess is stereotypes that conservative pundits are cunning enough to play into. For example, when Thucky first read this canard about the "typical" poor person, I'm guessing the mental picture he had was of the urban poor, and not any of the other categories of clearly poor people in America. Although items such as flat screens and cell phones are fairly basic these days, the words still conjure up the image of someone with the latest hi-tech toys. It's all a bit reminiscent of the "welfare queen" image that Ronald Reagan used so effectively. 

Can we do anything to help the Thuckys of the world unlearn the poor aren't really poor canard? Perhaps, but it won't be easy. Even if we could create an image of a poor person sitting on a broken couch, in a rundown housing unit, dressed in rags and suffering from poor health, but watching a flat screen television, the flat screen is the part that would register. In all likelihood, inequality would have to be even more grotesque in America than it already is for the scales to fall from the eyes of the conservative masses. 

2 responses to “The “Poor Aren’t Really Poor” Canard

  1. 90th percentile worldwide? What’s the relevance of that? Yes, America’s poor are doing better than starving people in Mali and Zambia, but so what? The relevant comparison would be how America’s poor are doing relative to the average American, or how America’s poor are doing relative to the poor in other developed countries of similar affluence.

    By your logic, the better America is doing compared to the rest of the world, the more justifiable extreme inequality in America would be. Why should that be?

    The collective net worth of America’s 50 million poor is less than the net worth of single Amreican individuals at the top of the Forbes 400 list. And you think the poor in America have too miuch?


  2. The only thing I have in mind is the Census bureau statistics which detail the assets of people classified as poor in Census bureau calculations. These, of course are average stats and some poor people have fewer of these assets, but the bottom line is that the typical poor person in America lives a lifestyle that is likely above the 90th percentile worldwide. This is only possible because we used to create massive amounts of net wealth in America. We no longer do that and the outcomes for poor people will soon start deteriorating rapidly.