Thirty-four percent of Americans say they belong to the "have-nots." Twenty years ago, only 17 percent of Americans defined themselves this way. What happened?
Apparently party affiliation, race and self-perception play a greater role than one's actual economic condition. The Pew Research Center, the organization conducting the poll, writes that one arrives at this belief, " . . . whether grounded in objective facts or not. . . . Analysis of polling data over the years," writes Pew, "also strongly suggests that the growing perception of societal divide is driven as much by political factors as by economic ones."
Take a look at the lot of the "have-nots." By virtually any criterion, Americans, even poor ones, live considerably better lives than they did even a decade or two ago. In 1995, 66 percent of poor households had air conditioning. Just 10 years later, in 2005, 80 percent of the poor had air conditioning at home. In 1995, 70 percent of poor households owned a car, and 27 percent owned two or more cars. By 2005, almost 75 percent owned cars, and 31 percent owned two or more. About 25 percent of the poor owned an automatic dishwasher in 1995. In 2005, more than 33 percent have a dishwasher. Microwave ownership jumped from 64 percent in 1995 to 89 percent by 2005.
The lowest-income one-fifth of households spend, per person, as much today as the median American household in the early 1970s, after adjusting for inflation. Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation writes, "Most of America's 'poor' live in material conditions that would be judged as comfortable or well-off just a few generations ago."
What about the rest of America? According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), from 1991 to 2005, earnings for families with children increased for the poorest 20 percent by 78 percent, after adjusting for inflation. The second 20 percent saw a 23 percent increase. The middle 20 percent had an 18 percent increase, and the 20 percent above them saw a 22 percent increase. The richest 20 percent enjoyed a 54 percent increase, still less than the very poorest 20 percent. The CBO's stats do not include government benefits, pensions and investment income. It focuses solely on wages and salaries, as opposed to total compensation, which also includes things like health care.