NEW YORK—They're baaack! Once again, the Heritage Foundation is mangling statistics to whitewash the ugly facts of life in Republican-run America.
Last time, in 2005, they attacked the image of U.S. soldiers as cannon fodder being exploited for Halliburton. Au contraire, claimed the conservative propaganda mill. American troops, they said, were actually "wealthier, more educated and more rural than the average" citizen. Of course, this wasn't true. Military personnel are poorer and less educated than the average Joe, I found, when I took a closer look. Heritage's soldier study used junk logic and apples-to-oranges statistics to promote the GOP's wars against Iraq and Afghanistan. And it worked.
The lazy men who run the big newspapers and TV networks, deluded into believing there are two sides to every story, dutifully repeated Heritage's lies. They never questioned a word. More soldiers died. The Heritage story made us feel less guilty about it.
Now Heritage is telling us that there are no poor people—very few, anyway, and then only for short periods of time—in the United States. The truth is that capitalism is failing millions of Americans. The less we think about the problem, the less we think it is a problem, the worse it will become.
The pseudoacademic demagogues of the right want us to distrust our own eyes. Panhandlers? "Homeless by choice" urban campers, Ronald Reagan, patron saint of modern Republicanism, called them. Single mothers? He said they were "welfare queens." Americans who live in the sprawling slums of the inner cities, the washed-up Walmarted Main Streets of the farm belt, and the scary barred-window suburbs of California and Georgia and Illinois? They're living large, says the Heritage Foundation in a "study" whose dubious findings have already been reprinted—completely unquestioned, as usual—by hundreds of newspapers read by millions of gullible subscribers.
The Census Bureau says that 36.5 million Americans—one in eight—are poor. But "if poverty means a lack of nutritious food, adequate warm housing, and clothing for a family, then very few of the people identified as living 'in poverty' would, in fact, be characterized as poor," says Heritage's Robert Rector. "The typical person defined as 'poor' by the Census has cable or satellite TV, air conditioning, a microwave, a DVD player or VCR, and two color TVs."
No doubt, poor people in a technologically advanced nation like the United States don't live as minimally as those in undeveloped states like Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, on the other hand, a middle-class American homeowner would be spectacularly wealthy. A man worth $500,000 could become a warlord. There are no Afghan billionaires. Poverty is relative.
Even the claim that gadget ownership is incompatible with true poverty doesn't hold up: Rector refers to "a DVD player or VCR." But VCRs are antiquated, a decade out of date. It's like saying that someone who owns "a computer or a typewriter" isn't poor.
"Poor Americans living in houses or apartments, on average, have more living space per person than does the average citizen living in European countries such as England, France and Germany," the Heritage study asserts. There's a footnote—but the source material doesn't include figures for per-capita housing density in Europe. (As far as I can tell, such data doesn't exist.) Even if it's true, though, it's a factoid without a point. Europe, urbanized for the past 2,000 years, has an overall higher population density than we do—yet enjoys the world's highest standard of living.
The more you think about Heritage's BS, the worse it gets.
"Three quarters of these 'poor'"—note the quotes—own a car," Rector continues. Are those cars in good working order, or up on blocks? He doesn't say—but there's a difference.
"When asked, [the typical 'poor person'] reports that his family was able to obtain medical care whenever needed during the past year," he continues. True—sorta. Uninsured people often rely on hospitals, enduring long waits and high fees for substandard care rendered by harried emergency room staffers. Hospitals are legally obligated to treat them—but it's hardly a workable system. Many poor (and middle class) people put off going to the doctor as long as possible.
Then there's this sparkling gem of compassion: "Some poor families," admits Rector, "do experience a temporary food shortage, a condition touted as 'hunger' by activists. But even this condition is relatively rare: 89 percent of the poor report their families always have 'enough' food to eat, while only 2 percent say they 'often' do not have enough to eat."
"Temporary food shortage." If that isn't hunger, what is? "Very simply," says the U.S. Department of Agriculture, "hunger is defined as the uneasy or painful sensation caused by lack of food. When we talk about hunger in America, we refer to the ability of people to obtain sufficient food for their household. Some people may find themselves skipping meals or cutting back on the quality or quantity of food they purchase at the stores. This recurring and involuntary lack of access to food can lead to malnutrition over time."
Economists consider a society's infant mortality rate to be the most reliable indicator of its citizens' quality of life, and the prevalence of poverty. The United States has the second-worst infant mortality rate in the industrialized world—behind Latvia, tied with Hungary, Malta, Poland and Slovakia. Western Europe—France, Germany, etc.—kicks our national ass. The poverty rate for American children under 18 was 21.9 percent in 2006, the highest in the developed world.
Upwardly mobile Americans can escape poverty numerous ways—by, for example, earning a college scholarship. But we also suffer a lot of downward mobility, typically after losing a job. "While in any given year, 12 to 15 percent of the population is poor," says Michael Zweig, author of What's Class Got To Do With It: American Society in the 21st Century, "over a 10-year period, 40 percent experience poverty in at least one year because most poor people cycle in and out of poverty."
Even the Heritage Foundation concedes that some poverty exists in this best of all possible laissez-faire worlds. But, they argue in the finest tradition of blame-the-victim, it's "self-inflicted, a result of poor decisions and self-defeating behaviors."
Poor Americans, they say, have a "weak work ethic." The evidence: "The typical poor family with children is supported by only 800 hours of work during a year—16 hours per week. "If work in each family were raised to 2,000 hours per year—the equivalent of one adult working 40 hours per week throughout the year—nearly 75 percent of poor children would be lifted out of official poverty." This assumes that poor parents live in a magical job market where they can work as many hours as they please—a condition that would only exist with zero percent unemployment.
"Father absence is another major cause of child poverty," says Heritage's poverty study. True. "Nearly two-thirds of poor children reside in single-parent homes; each year, an additional 1.3 million children are born out of wedlock." Again true. The conservative solution: "If poor mothers married the fathers of their children, almost three-quarters would immediately be lifted out of poverty." Stupid welfare queens! Why do they refuse to marry the fathers of their children?
A cat or dog understands hunger. The fact that we have to have this discussion demonstrates the success of the right in redefining basic terms—and the failure of the press to question it.
Ted Rall is the author of the new book Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East? an in-depth prose and graphic novel analysis of America's next big foreign policy challenge.