In a report titled “Air Conditioning, Cable TV and an Xbox,” [the Heritage Foundation] argues that “the typical poor American had more living space than the average European.” and that while “[p]oor families certainly struggle to make ends meet, … in most cases, they are struggling to pay for air conditioning and the cable TV bill as well as to put food on the table.”
It’s certainly true that poverty today does not look like the poverty Harrington chronicled in the 1960s. But neither does typical “middle-class” life. In 1960, nearly 1 in 5 American homes lacked complete plumbing, and 1 in 10 homes had no flush toilet. More than 1 in 5 homes also had no telephone - unthinkable today.
While the absurdity of the Heritage Foundation’s line of argument is easy for policy elitists to dismiss (poverty is relative, not absolute, hello? [my emphasis]), this argument still gets traction with the American public in ways that are ultimately very damaging to modern efforts to restarting a war on poverty.
This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort...Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.
- Define poverty in absolute terms, such as access to food, housing, clothing and education, and strive for its elimination.
- Openly acknowledge to taxpayers that the war on poverty is not simply designed to ensure the provision of basic human needs, but will be a never-ending wealth transfer to some percentage of the population based on its relative standing.
Furthermore, given evidence that federal aid programs may actually be driving the persistence of poverty rather than reducing it, such a national debate should probably take place regardless.