Thomas Sowell
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Ed. Note: This is part two of a two part Sowell column. Part one is available here.

If there were a contest for the most misleading words used in politics, "poverty" should be one of the leading contenders for that title.

Each of us may have his own idea of what poverty means -- especially those of us who grew up in poverty. But what poverty means politically and in the media is whatever the people who collect statistics choose to define as poverty.

This is not just a question of semantics. The whole future of the welfare state depends on how poverty is defined. "The poor" are the human shields behind whom advocates of ever bigger spending for ever bigger government advance toward their goal.

If poverty meant what most people think of as poverty -- people "ill-clad, ill-housed, and ill-nourished," in Franklin D. Roosevelt's phrase -- there would not be nearly enough people in poverty today to justify the vastly expanded powers and runaway spending of the federal government.

Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation has for years examined what "the poor" of today actually have -- and the economic facts completely undermine the political rhetoric.

Official data cited by Rector show that 80 percent of "poor" households have air-conditioning today, which less than half the population of America had in 1970. Nearly three-quarters of households in poverty own a motor vehicle, and nearly one-third own more than one motor vehicle.

Virtually everyone living in "poverty," as defined by the government, has color television, and most have cable TV or satellite TV. More than three-quarters have either a VCR or a DVD player, and nearly nine-tenths have a microwave oven.

As for being "ill-housed," the average poor American has more living space than the general population -- not just the poor population -- of London, Paris and other cities in Europe.

Various attempts have been made over the years to depict Americans in poverty as "ill-fed" but the "hunger in America" campaigns that have enjoyed such political and media popularity have usually used some pretty creative methods and definitions.

Actual studies of "the poor" have found their intake of the necessary nutrients to be no less than that of others. In fact, obesity is slightly more prevalent among low-income people.

The real triumph of words over reality, however, is in expensive government programs for "the elderly," including Medicare. The image often invoked is the person who is both ill and elderly, and who has to choose between food and medications.

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Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

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