Every couple of years, Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation tries to convince us that the problem of poverty in America has been exaggerated. Most recently (with coauthor Rachel Sheffield), he asserts that we shouldn’t be worrying so much about policies to reduce poverty because poor people in America today usually have enough to eat, mostly live in decent housing, and generally can afford amenities like air conditioning or an Xbox. In their view, the public should only be concerned about people suffering from severe material deprivation like hunger and homelessness.
Although the focus on Xboxes is new, Rector and his associates have been making the same argument since 1990. And every time, they’ve ignored two critically important facts about poverty in America—facts that are a lot more important than who owns a TV or an Xbox.
Fact #1: The main reason more Americans don’t suffer from severe material deprivation is our country’s commitment to a compassionate safety net. Our collective contributions to food stamps, income supplements, housing codes, and health clinics have done a lot of good. But many of these supports have been stretched thin by the Great Recession and could be eroded by looming fiscal pressures. Assuming that most Americans want to prevent material hardship, we should care about protecting—and bolstering—our antipoverty policies.
Fact #2: Growing up in poverty stunts a child’s future, belying our ideals of equal opportunity. Some families experience poverty only briefly—when a parent loses a job or can’t work as many hours as she’d like. But for kids who experience several years of poverty, the cumulative effects of housing instability, poor health, family stresses, neighborhood crime and violence, and crummy schools take a tremendous toll. The evidence is compelling that persistent poverty significantly reduces children’s prospects for succeeding in school, getting a decent job, and earning a living wage as adults.
So I’m a lot less interested in whether poor kids have Xboxes than in helping their parents give them the security, stability, and support they need to grow up smart, healthy, and successful.