The Lazy Non-Poor People Below the “Poverty” Line Who Get Welfare, and the Hard-Working Poor Above it Who Get Taxed

by Hans Bader on September 13, 2011 · 6 comments

in Legal, Politics as Usual, Zeitgeist

There are plenty of people below the poverty line who aren’t really poor, and some people above the poverty line who are indeed quite poor. The poverty line is a very arbitrary measure seemingly designed to justify lots of spending on welfare and social services for “disadvantaged” people who aren’t really poor, spending that generates jobs for government employees (and government-subsidized non-profits) who provide welfare and handouts.

Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation explains how many people below the poverty line aren’t really poor at all:

There is a wide chasm between the public’s concept of poverty and “poverty” as it is defined by the Census Bureau. The public generally thinks of poverty as . . . homelessness, or malnutrition and chronic hunger. In reality, the vast majority of those identified as poor by the annual census report did not experience significant material deprivation.

In a recent Rasmussen poll, adults agreed (by a ratio of six to one) that “a family that is adequately fed and living in a house or apartment that is in good repair” is not poor. By that simple test, about 80 percent of the Census Bureau’s “poor” people would not be considered poor by their fellow Americans.

In the same Rasmussen poll, however, 73 percent said poverty was a severe problem. Why the disconnect? The answer: Public perception of poverty in the U.S. is governed by the mainstream media, which invariably depicts the Census Bureau’s tens of millions of poor people as chronically hungry and malnourished, homeless or barely hanging on in overcrowded, dilapidated housing.

The strategy of the media is to take the least fortunate 3 percent or 4 percent of the poor and portray their condition as representative of most poor Americans. . .[But] they are far from typical among the poor. . . a poor child in American is far more likely to have a widescreen plasma television, cable or satellite TV, a computer and an Xbox or TiVo in his home than he is to be hungry. . .In 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture asked parents living in poverty this question: “In the last 12 months, were [your] children ever hungry but you just couldn’t afford more food?” Some 96 percent of poor parents responded “no”: Their children never had been hungry because of a lack of food resources at any time in the previous year. . . .

Here are more surprising facts about Americans defined as “poor” by the Census Bureau. . .

Eighty percent of poor households have air conditioning. By contrast, in 1970, only 36 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning. Fully 92 percent of poor households have a microwave; two-thirds have at least one DVD player and 70 percent have a VCR. Nearly 75 percent have a car or truck; 31 percent have two or more cars or trucks. . .Nearly two-thirds have cable or satellite television. Half have a personal computer; one in seven have two or more computers. More than half of poor families with children have a video game system such as Xbox or PlayStation. . . A third have a widescreen plasma or LCD TV. . .

At a single point in time, only one in 70 poor persons is homeless. The vast majority of the houses or apartments of the poor are in good repair; only 6 percent are over-crowded. The average poor American has more living space than the average non-poor individual living in Sweden, France, Germany or the United Kingdom. . .Forty-two percent of all poor households own their home; on average, it’s a three-bedroom house with one-and-a-half baths, a garage, and a porch or patio. . . among the lowest-income fifth of households, inflation-adjusted consumer spending actually increased modestly during the recession.

Given these facts, how does the Census Bureau conclude that more than 40 million Americans are poor? They identify a family as poor the family’s cash income falls below specific thresholds. For example, in 2009 a family of four was “poor” if annual cash income fell below $21,954.

But in counting income, the Census Bureau ignores almost the entire welfare state. This year, government will spend over $900 billion on means-tested anti-poverty programs that provide cash, food, housing, medical care and targeted social services to poor and near-poor Americans. . .This means-tested welfare spending comes to around $9,000 for each poor or low-income American — virtually none of which is counted by census officials for purposes of calculating poverty or inequality.

I am a lawyer, but I actually live worse than many so-called “poor” people collecting government welfare due to their being below the poverty line. As Rector notes, among the substantial fraction of people below the poverty line who own their own home, the average home is “a three-bedroom house with one-and-a-half baths, a garage, and a porch or patio.”  I have a two-bedroom house with no garage and no porch or patio. (I live in a high-living-cost area — metropolitan Washington, D.C., where well-paid government contractors and federal employees are able to bid up the cost of housing — with the result that I cannot afford a larger house. My little two-bedroom house is assessed at $570,000, and a larger house would cost more.) But because I live in a high-cost area, I am paid a salary that is above average for the American worker, meaning that I am treated as being “rich” by the Obama administration for purposes of things like phasing out the child-tax credit I would otherwise receive for my daughter if my income were lower.

Some people who are suffering economically, and who have very little net income, are treated as not being poor for purposes of the federal poverty line. Many financial and legal obligations are not factored into the government’s definition of income, which is what matters for purposes of the poverty line and most welfare benefits. For example, child support payments are not tax deductible, so if you are ordered to pay most of your income in child support, leaving you with little money to buy food, you are not deemed to be poor or below the poverty line. This often happens to people who were ordered to pay large amounts of child support based on the fact that they used to have a well-paying job, but no longer do. Child support is supposed to be based on your income under state child-support guidelines. But in practice, state child support agencies typically refuse to reduce child-support obligations when people lose their jobs or experience reduced income due to a recession. The Urban Institute found that only 4 percent of non-custodial parents managed to obtain reductions in their monthly payments. A recent news story described how family-court judges are now jailing fathers who faithfully paid all of their child support as long as they were employed, but then became temporarily unable to make their payments due to the loss of their job in the recession.

As MSNBC noted, you can end up

behind bars if you . . . are behind on your child-support payments. Thousands of so-called “deadbeat” parents are jailed each year in the U.S. after failing to pay court-ordered child support . . .But in what might seem like an un-American plot twist from a Charles Dickens’ novel, advocates for the poor say, some parents are wrongly being locked away without any regard for their ability to pay. . .Randy Miller, a 39-year-old Iraqi war vet, found himself in that situation in November, when a judge in Floyd County, Ga., sent him to jail for violating a court order to pay child support. He said he was stunned when the judge rebuffed his argument that he had made regular payments for more than a decade before losing his job in July 2009 and had recently resumed working. “I felt that with my payment history and that I had just started working, maybe I would be able to convince the judge to give me another month and a half to start making the payments again,” he told msnbc.com. “… But that didn’t sit too well with him because he went ahead and decided to lock me up.” Miller . . . spent three months in jail before being released.

In Virginia, whose child-support guidelines are likely to increase soon to grossly-excessive levels, the state courts regularly impute imaginary income to non-custodial parents for purposes of calculating (and increasing) their child-support obligations. If you quit your salaried job to start a small business and it succeeds, making you rich, the courts will increase your child support to reflect your actual increased income. But if your small business fails, they will reproach you for “gambling” with your family’s future, and base your monthly child-support obligations not on your current actual income (which is lower because you can’t go back to your old job), but instead based on your past income from the old job that you no longer have. This is called “imputed income,” and it discourages divorced parents from starting small businesses, reducing the size of Virginia’s economy. It could be summarized as “heads I win, tails you lose,” and it has been criticized by experienced family lawyers like Richard Crouch.

Impoverished investors also get fleeced despite being poor under the current definition of “poverty.” Some types of financial losses are not factored into taxable income. A person who experienced catastrophic capital losses is partly out of luck, since only $3,000 in net capital losses can be deducted annually on your tax return (by contrast, there is no limit to the amount of capital gains that can be taxed, and capital gains taxes can be imposed even if the entire capital “gain” is the result of inflation, and is essentially an accounting fiction, meaning that the investor really made no money at all). Remember that the next time someone tells you that the tax code discriminates in favor of people whose income is from capital gains. In reality, the tax code discriminates against capital gains except when the economy is growing and inflation is low, since capital gains taxes are levied on increases in asset value that are the product of inflation, rather than actually increases in value. America’s capital gains tax rates, which Obama wants to raise, are already higher than in Canada and much of Europe, and much higher than in Germany and Japan. Even countries with higher tax rates than the U.S. sometimes actually tax less than the U.S. does, because they allow taxpayers to avoid capital gains taxes based on inflationary gains, unlike the U.S.

People treated as “poor” by government welfare programs often get more money in food stamps than many taxpayers (like me) actually spend on food. A record 45.8 million people are now on food stamps, including some millionaires who are treated as “poor” because although they have lots of assets, they have little monthly cash income (or because their income is tax-exempt). The $800 billion stimulus package largely repealed welfare reform, and resulted in changes in some state laws that made it easier for lazy people to collect welfare.

Rebecca September 14, 2011 at 10:13 am

Working poor is not living in a $570,000 house. Working poor is living in a $35,000 house in an unsafe neighborhood and commuting to the place where people living in $570,000 houses.

When you’re in that situation, working your ass off to survive, and you’re angry because the people in your neighborhood get housing assistance to live in their $35,000 homes, then you have the right to make this argument.

Glen Stambaugh September 14, 2011 at 10:46 am

Excellent article! So much the public does not know… and I’ll include myself!

Joe Ertl September 14, 2011 at 11:56 am

There is an ad for a “free cell phone & minutes program” directly below the article. If you go to the website it states you may qualify if you participate in programs such as medicaid and food stamps. Add the cost or a portion of the cost of your cell phone to the list. I knew a woman with children that was on the dole. She had her employed boyfriend living with her and they lived better than my wife and I that both worked. She eventually convinced someone that she was disabled due to “nerves” and received a nice check for her “back pay”. I think that I will eventually retire better than someone like that but I’m not sure and it is discouraging.

E Yarger September 14, 2011 at 4:55 pm

“But in practice, state child support agencies typically refuse to reduce child-support obligations when people lose their jobs or experience reduced income due to a recession.” : I have been an attorney for a child support agency for 20 years. If you lose your job for no fault of your own (i.e. you weren’t fired) you can ask for a modification at any time for free. Many people don’t follow through.
“Imputed income”: The income amount we impute when someone is not working is state minimum wage at 30 hours per week, which is about $11,500 per year unless you are voluntarily underemployed – i.e. lazy/fired/quit.
Being sent to jail: Contempt for failure to pay child support is civil and you must be given an opportunity to purge yourself of contempt before being jailed – it takes several hearings and many, many months to get sent to jail.

But other than that, I agree with you.

Matt in Austin September 14, 2011 at 11:02 pm

I am in a lot of poor people’s homes due to a program I work for. Your figures are spot-on for what I’ve obsereved through experience: about 80% are scammers that should be supporting themselves. I see a lot of possessions that are not neccessities, which would be fine if they were paying for it themselves. Also, I have a lazy good-for-nothing 23 year old nephew who quit his job at walmart over a year ago, who’s life goal is to “get on disability”. His only disability is he won’t get his *ss out the door and work!

Dogbyte September 21, 2011 at 1:18 pm

Hey Rebecca,

Screw you. The poor in this country can move out a crime infested area and move to a new city. They choose not to. And those so called poor do have more money for food than a lot of us working people do. I live paycheck to paycheck and barely can pay for my gas each month. I do not take food stamps or any government assistance even though I made less than 25,000 last year. I have two young children and my wife makes minimum wage. I was raised not to take from the government if I can provide for myself and family.

I owned my own business. Made very little money but still owed over $3,500 in federal income taxes. The poor who rely on government do have more food, more disposable income and more toys that someone like me. But I have dignity and I will stick with that and hopefully by getting others off of the public dole they too can pull themselves out of the dependent state. I can’t believe you read the whole article and still went back to the argument that these people are poor helpless souls. What is poor is that they will not get off of their buts and make something of their life. At least I am trying even if I don’t have all of the so called comforts of the poor.

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