The never-ending war against poverty

The latest cause to attract the enthusiasm of the 2007 legislature - after heating fuel conservation, universal preschooling, and gay marriage - is the prevalence of poverty, especially that afflicting children. The legislature charged a new Vermont Child Poverty Council with finding ways to reduce the Vermont child poverty rate from 15% to half of that ten years from now.

The Council's hearings around the state are predictably attracting numerous advocates for the poor. They bring with them all sorts of stories about deepening hardship and privation, and most if not all of them support bold government action to lift people out of poverty.

"Poverty" requires measurement. The "Federal Poverty Level" (now $20,615 for a family of four) is universally viewed as hopelessly inadequate. It undercounts income, omits earned income tax credits, and ignores all non-cash benefits for the poor, such as subsidized housing, food stamps, and Medicaid.

In any case, the Census Bureau, still using the FPL, found that 12.3% of all people were poor in 2006, down from 12.6% the year before. Various government surveys reveal some interesting facts about what living in poverty is like today.

Forty three percent of all poor households own their own homes, on average a three-bedroom house with one and a half baths.

Two thirds of poor households live in dwellings with more than two rooms per person. Indeed, the average poor American has more living space than the average resident of Paris, London, Vienna, or Athens.

Eighty percent of poor households enjoy air conditioning. Eighty nine percent have a microwave oven. Ninety seven percent own a color TV, and 62 percent enjoy cable or satellite reception.

Seventy three percent of poor households own a car or truck; 31% own more than one.

Ranked by income, the lowest one-fifth of households makes per capita expenditures equal in real dollars to those of the median income households of 1970. Living in poverty is a lot better than it used to be, even forty years ago.

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