Bill Steigerwald

Robert Rector of The Heritage Foundation is a national authority on poverty and the U.S. welfare system. Specializing in welfare reform and family breakdown, Rector has done extensive research on the economic and social costs of welfare.

With presidential candidates of a certain hue decrying the suffering of the 37 million Americans who have been officially classified as poor by the U.S. Census Bureau, we thought we'd ask Rector if these poor people are really as poverty-stricken as we have been led to believe. I talked to the author of “America's Failed $5.4 Trillion War on Poverty” Thursday, Sept. 6, by telephone from his office in Washington:

Q: John Edwards and others lament that 37 million Americans struggle with incredible poverty every day. You say it is not so simple or accurate to think of them as truly poor. What do you mean?

A: Well, when John Edwards says that one in eight Americans do not have enough money for food, shelter or clothing, that’s generally what the average citizen is thinking about when they hear the word “poverty.” But if that’s what we mean by poverty, then virtually none of these 37 million people that are ostensibly poor are actually poor. In reality, the government runs multiple surveys that allow us to examine the physical living conditions of these individuals in great detail.

When you look at the people who John Edwards insists are poor, what you find is that the overwhelming majority of them have cable television, have air conditioning, have microwaves, have two color TVs; 45 percent of them own their own homes, which are typically three-bedroom homes with 1{1/2} baths in very good recondition. On average, poor people who live in either apartments or in houses are not crowded and actually have more living space than the average person living in European countries, such as France, Italy or England.

Also, a lot of people believe that poor people are malnourished. But in fact when you look at the average nutriment intake of poor children, it is virtually indistinguishable from upper-middle-class children. In fact, poor kids by the time they reach age 18 or 19 are taller and heavier than the average middle-class teenagers in the 1950s at the time of Elvis. And the boys, when they reach 18, are a full one inch taller and 10 pounds heavier than the GIs storming the beaches of Normandy. It’s pretty hard to accomplish that if you are facing chronic food shortages throughout your life.

Q: How many Americans would you define as “truly poor”?

A: If you are looking at people who do not have adequate warm, dry apartments that are in good repair, and don’t have enough food to feed their kids, you’re probably looking at one family in 100, not one family in eight.

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald, born and raised in Pittsburgh, is a former L.A. Times copy editor and free-lancer who also worked as a docudrama researcher for CBS-TV in Hollywood before becoming a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a columnist Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Bill Steigerwald recently retired from daily newspaper journalism..