In Chapter Two of the encyclical Charity in Truth (Caritas in Veritate), published in June, Pope Benedict XVI observes that the “world’s wealth is growing in absolute terms, but inequalities are on the increase” as hunger persists alongside new forms of poverty.
Nobody doubts that poverty afflicts less developed nations in Africa and Asia, but is poverty a serious problem in the United States today?
It would seem so. The 2009 “poverty guidelines” followed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services start at $10,830 a year for one person and rise to $29,530 a year for a family of six. By those standards, about one in eight Americans, one in five Hispanics and one in four African-Americans live below the poverty line.
But Nicholas Eberstadt, a fine scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, believes that the official poverty rate exaggerates the actual extent of poverty in America today by measuring income rather than consumption. In his 2008 book, The Poverty of “The Poverty Rate” (A.E.I. Press), he cites data indicating that most families who live below the poverty line own cars; over 40 percent have central air conditioning; a third have dishwashers; and a quarter have personal computers.
In another 2008 volume, Prices, Poverty, and Inequality (A.E.I. Press), Christian Broda and David E. Weinstein, economics professors, stress that today’s “poor” enjoy better and cheaper goods like air bags, cellular phones and computers. They estimate that the real wages of the officially poor have actually risen by 30 percent since the late 1970s and that “the actual poverty rate” has fallen by 60 percent since 1970.
These good analysts make good points, and I am all for refining how Washington measures material want. But this is no mere academic matter, and there is no perfect way to measure as complex and multifaceted a condition as poverty. To even begin to imply that poverty in America is a myth is to make a huge empirical error and an even worse moral mistake.
Start with “food insecurity,” defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a household without “enough food” for all members due to “insufficient money and other resources for food.”
Over 20 million American adults and over 10 million American children live in food-insecure households. In 2008 a record 28 million Americans were in the U.S.D.A.’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program. In economically hard hit Michigan, one in eight citizens needed food stamps. Just ask people who run faith-based food pantries in Detroit and other cities from coast to coast if the U.S.D.A. data exaggerate the hunger problem in America today.
In my hometown of Philadelphia, half of all households have annual incomes less than $35,000. The city’s official poverty rate is nearly 20 percent. Most of the more than 325,000 Philadelphians below the poverty line are African-American or Hispanic. In 2008, one in eight Philadelphians had no health insurance.
So even if the “actual” poverty rate in Philadelphia and nationally is only half the official rate, brotherly love dictates doing better: more private charity; redoubled faith-based services; and increased public cash benefits, medical assistance and subsidies for child care and energy bills.
I have often heard certain politically conservative professors and pundits who ought to know better assert in one breath that America’s “poor” are not really poor because those on “welfare” now get so many government benefits and then, in the very next breath, that the “war on poverty” has long since failed.
Actually, the biggest post-1965 dips in the U.S. poverty rate occurred in those years when government antipoverty programs expanded the fastest, and the single biggest post-1965 dip in poverty occurred in the group that got more government benefits per capita than any other—namely, the elderly.
Today about 46 million people in the United States have no health insurance. Not surprisingly, the uninsured poor get less (and lower quality) medical care than the rest of us.
The lowest national poverty rate on record was 11.1 percent in 1973. Alas, sinful inequalities persist in the United States today, and charity in truth must begin at home.