You can’t spend much time in right-of-center circles without hearing, often in the comfort of an open bar, that America’s poor don’t have it too bad. Yes, there are about 45 million people below the official poverty line. But that doesn’t mean that they’re suffering under the conditions we see in photos of the dustbowl or the old industrial slums. A Heritage Foundation report observes that “When LBJ launched the War on Poverty, about a quarter of poor Americans lacked flush toilets and running water in the home. Today, such conditions have all but vanished. According to government surveys, over 80 percent of the poor have air conditioning, three quarters have a car, nearly two thirds have cable or satellite TV, half have a computer, and 40 percent have a wide screen HDTV.”
Megan McArdle makes a version of the same argument in her comment on Joni Ernst’s State of the Union response. She reminds Internet snarks who mocked Ernst’s story about using plastic bags to protect her only pair of shoes that this was a common practice until pretty recently. According to McArdle, “we forget how much poorer we used to be, and then we forget that we have forgotten.” These days, even people without much money enjoy a material abundance of which their grandparents could only have dreamed. (Rod Dreher remembers the story of his own family here.)
That’s true, as far as it goes. Pretty much anything that’s made in a factory is cheaper and higher-quality than it used to be. I admit to moments of SWPL enthusiasm for craftsmanship (or the Brooklyn facsimile). But let’s get real: expanded access to consumer products is a good thing.
But that doesn’t mean poverty is exaggerated by ungrateful whiners. Goods and services that depend on skilled human labor cost more than they used to. Curiously, McArdle relies on figures from 1987 to make her case that American households face lighter expenses for necessities than they used to. That ignores the increase in prices for childcare, healthcare, and higher education over the last decade or so.
So people can accumulate possessions while maintaining a relatively low standard of living. Indoor plumbing won’t take care of your kids, and an Xbox won’t send them to college. The poor are also more likely to suffer from “diseases of affluence” such as obesity and diabetes. Unlike the truly affluent, however, they can’t afford to have them treated.
Material deprivation is also not always the most wrenching aspect of poverty. As Karl Polanyi argues his study of the Industrial Revolution, the lack of meaningful work and a secure social position can be worse than low wages or high consumer prices.
It’s important to question depictions of Dickensian poverty in the media, which often focus on exceptional cases. And we should resist nostalgia for a mythical time when folks didn’t have much but their dignity. But the grinding, uncertain lives of poor Americans today is a problem that new shoes and air conditioning won’t solve.
Literary Addendum: McArdle draws several examples of the bad old days from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House novels for children. She claims:
…what really strikes you is how incredibly poor these people were. The Ingalls family were in many ways bourgeoisie: educated by the standards of the day, active in community leadership, landowners. And they had nothing.
This is a serious misreading of the books. As Wilder’s autobiography makes clear, the reason that the Ingalls family seems poor is that they were poor. There was nothing bourgeois about them, except perhaps Ma’s (relatively) advanced education. Even in the idealized version presented in the books, the Ingallses fail, time and again, to realize their dream of becoming independent farmers. That’s why the story ends, rather tragically, with Pa working as a clerk in a railroad town, a fate that he’d dragged his family thousands of miles to avoid.