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Poverty Wanking at the Heritage Foundation

Robert Rector, Senior Research Fellow, DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society Domestic Policy Studies

One of the functions of the Heritage Foundation is to provide talking points to wing-nut bloggers. Robert Rector, a long-term poverty buff at the Heritage Foundation is a good example. In a September, 2011 report, he and Rachel Sheffield explain that the poor have it really great in the US. Some of them have flat screen TVs, washing machines, computers and cars, and sometimes all four! They get lots of money from charity, and from their boyfriends and so they are fine. And, of course, it’s their fault they’re poor:

Among families with children, the collapse of marriage and erosion of the work ethic are the principal long-term causes of poverty. When the recession ends, welfare policy must require able-bodied recipients to work or prepare for work as a condition of receiving aid. It should also strengthen marriage in low-income communities rather than ignore and penalize it.

Of course, that last is reference to Rector’s claim to fame, his role in creating Bill Clinton’s end to welfare as we know it. He’s sticking by that go to work thing. The average poor person, he says, works only 16 hours a week. They need to get married and work more, and Rector is just the man to make them.

Rector and Sheffield claim that liberals say that the poor suffer in other ways.

In fact, the overwhelming majority of poor households have an adequate and reasonably steady supply of food, are not hungry, and are well housed.

We’ll just ignore that minority. Even better, most Americans think that you aren’t poor if you live that well. Rector hides the fact that one reason so many poor aren’t dying in the streets is Government programs, like food stamps, Medicare and SCHIP, which isn’t even mentioned in the report. Rector and Sheffield see this as proof that the poor are dependent on government aid, and that we should “reorient the massive welfare state to create self-sufficient prosperity rather than expanded dependence.” I wonder if they feel the same way about subsidies to the rich, like tax-deductible contributions to the Heritage Foundations.

Rachel Sheffield, Research Associate, DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society

Of course you can’t argue with people paid to have a Randian point of view. I’ll just round out this picture with data from tables 4A and 4B the most recent Federal Reserve Bank Survey of Consumer Finances, done in 2009 and published last year.

The lowest quintile by income of Americans has a median net worth of $7,200, including homes. That means that 10% of the population has a net worth of less than $7,200. Among renters, the median net worth is $3,600. Looking at percentiles of wealth, the lowest 25 percent of Americans has a net worth of $1,700. Remember, that net worth figure includes all that stuff Rector and Sheffield talk about, the microwave, the VCR, the non-portable stereo and the cars.

On the debt side, about 56% of the lowest income quintile of the population reports having debt, with a median of $10,000. About 14.4% of these families have mortgage debt, including second liens, with a median of $42,300. About 33% report installment debt, with a median of $8,200. That includes student loans, car loans and other debt. Credit cards are reported separately. About 28% of people in this category report credit card balances, with a median of $1,100.

For the bottom 25th percentile in wealth, among families reporting debt, the median debt is $16,000, including mortgage debt. About 12.6% of families in this group have mortgages, with a median of $16,000. About 70% of these families report having debt, which suggests that something like 58% of families have only non-mortgage debt. The Fed doesn’t report on this group, but I estimate that the median debt among that 58% is in the range of $10,000.

It’s debt that makes people miserable, as Katherine Porter reports in her book Broke. It causes stress and sleeplessness, and it contributes to family breakdown. It means that sometimes people go hungry, and by people, I mean poor children. It means debt collectors pounding on you, and making you miserable. It means your truck gets repossessed.

I wonder if any of that looks like poverty to Rector or Sheffield. Probably not. And remember they’re not hacks clinging to their sinecures. They are respected members of the DC Wankery. I wonder if Rector and Sheffield get paid extra when reactionary bloggers dumb down their cherry-picking discourse-fogging pronouncements so their real audience can chant them at Tea Party rallies.

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