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A poor definition of poverty

For two decades, the Census Bureau has reported almost yearly that more than 35 million Americans live in "poverty." Last fall, census officials grabbed headlines by saying 43.5 million persons were poor. That's one in seven Americans.

But what does it mean to be "poor" in America• What is poverty?

For most U.S. residents, the word "poverty" suggests destitution: an inability to provide yourself and your family with reasonable shelter, nutritious food and clothing.

A Poverty Pulse poll taken by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, for example, asked: "How would you describe being poor in the U.S.?" The vast majority of responses focused on homelessness, hunger or inability to eat properly, and failure to meet basic needs.

Such images have little or nothing to do with the actual living conditions of most of the more than 40 million Americans defined as "poor" by the Census Bureau.

The government's own survey data show that in 2005, the average poor household lived in a house or apartment equipped with air conditioning and cable television. The family had a car -- and a third of the poor have at least two cars.

For entertainment, the average poor household enjoyed two color TVs, a DVD player and a VCR. If children were in the home (especially boys), the family had a video game system such as Xbox or PlayStation.

The home of this average poor family also was in good repair and not overcrowded, according to government data. In fact, the typical poor American had more living space than the average European. (That's average European, not average poor European.)

Not only was the average poor family able to obtain necessary medical care, but when asked, most families said they had enough money in the past year to meet all essential needs.

In fact, the average intake of protein, vitamins and minerals by poor children is indistinguishable from that of kids in the upper middle class. In most cases, it's well above recommended norms.

Should a family that lives this way be considered poor• The overwhelming answer from the public is no. A scientific national poll conducted in 2009 for The Heritage Foundation asked individuals whether they agreed or disagreed with this statement:

"A family in the U.S. that has a decent, uncrowded house or apartment to live in, ample food to eat, access to medical care, a car, cable television, air conditioning and a microwave at home should not be considered poor."

These living conditions closely match those of the typical family defined as "poor" by the Census Bureau. But the vast majority of Americans said they wouldn't regard such a family as poor. That includes 80 percent of Republicans and 77 percent of Democrats.

Although the overwhelming majority of the poor were well-housed, the government numbers show, roughly 4 percent became temporarily homeless during 2009.

Such problems remain a real concern. But effective government policy and programs must be based on accurate information, not sensation-mongering.

Robert Rector is senior research fellow in domestic policy at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org) and co-author of the new report "Air Conditioning, Cable TV and an Xbox: What is Poverty in the United States Today?" Pat Buchanan is off today.

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