February 15, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

In debates about poverty in the US, conservatives will usually point out that many people with incomes below the poverty line have a standard of living equal to that of middle class people of earlier times or other places. Here’s a typical version, by Robert Rector, written in 1990 and posted on the conservative Heritage foundation Website. After noting that the poor own homes (38%) and cars (62%), Rector concludes,
“Poor” Americans today are better housed, better fed, and own more property than did the average U.S. citizen throughout much of the 20th Century. In 1988, the per capita expenditures of the lowest income fifth of the U.S. population exceeded the per capita expenditures of the median American household in 1955, after adjusting for inflation.
(The quotation marks are enough to clue you in that Rector doesn’t think that a family living on $15,000 a year is really poor. They’re merely “poor.”)

By a similar logic, the “poor” today are better off than J. P. Morgan because Morgan didn’t have a washing machine. And they’re better off than Louis XIV because the Sun King didn’t have indoor plumbing.

Bill O’Reilly put the “not really poor” argument more succinctly, “Even the poor have color television sets and pretty much everything they need.”

O’Reilly at least comes closer to the real issue. Being poor is not simply a matter of what you have. It’s what you have compared with what you need.

But what do you need? In the 1600s, nobody needed a flush toilet because nobody had one. And for a similar reason, nobody in the Gilded Age of the late 1800s needed a washing machine.

Needs are determined by what people have. If nearly everybody in a society has a car, that society becomes a place where a car is a necessity. And if you can’t afford to buy what people think are the necessities, you are poor.

Here are the results of Pew Research poll published late last year. The poll asked people whether they thought an item was "a necessity" or "a luxury you could do without."
(You don’t have to be a social constructionist to see that what people need is not much different from what they think they need.)

(Click on the graph to see it in a larger version)

Have you got what it takes?

Note that ten years ago, a microwave was a luxury for two-thirds of the population. Now it's a necessity for two-thirds. I’m in the minority on that one, and I'm missing two of the other top five items as well.


Socioprof said...

Reading the Pew research about what people considered necessities may actually cause me to take some action. My house in Massachusetts does not have air conditing. We never bothered to get whole house air conditing because there are about two weeks in the summer when you really miss it. It did not seem worth doing. At some point in the near future I will probably try to sell the house and I can see that this is going to cause some people to reject the house. I have already set up a time for someone to give me an estimate. I should have listened to my wife years ago. She always said it was a necessity.

SARA said...

I wonder what people will view as a necessity 25 years from now or sooner - the IPOD?
Very interesting reading...thank you for linking the Pew Research Poll-i've always thought of "poor" as those who had no home, no definition of poor was way off base.