Sunday, January 22, 2006

In Living Color

The recent article Poverty now comes with a color TV describes data that has been referenced before in right-wing blogs that I have visited. One of them used to go on about how there are no poor people in America because data like this shows they all live a life of wealth and convenience:
"In terms of the items people have ... it amazes me the number of people who are at or near the poverty line that have color TVs, cable, washer, dryer, microwave," says Michael Cosgrove, an economist at the University of Dallas in Irving, Texas. That's not to ignore the hardships of poverty, he adds, "but the conveniences they have are in fact pretty good."
But, are they really? Mr. Cosgrove examines data that presents averages and statistics, but does that data present a realistic picture of daily life for everyone below the poverty level?

I don't think it does. The first clue is the phrase "color TV". Color TV!? What is this, 2006 or 1966? Look, anyone who has a television in 2006 (or for the last ten years, really), is likely to have a color one simply because that is pretty much the only kind that has been manufactured (with very few exceptions) for many years now. It's harder to find a black & white TV than it is to find a color one. And, for those of you who are not in the know, low-income people don't buy their appliances new at Sears or Best Buy or wherever, they buy 'em in thrift stores or pawn shops or at yard sales, or receive them as hand-me-downs. So, the scenario implied in the article that poor people are going out and dropping a couple of c-notes on a new television is bullshit. Sure, they have a "color TV"... they skipped lunch for a few weeks and picked it up at Goodwill for forty bucks. The same holds true for microwaves, which can be picked up in thrift stores for a pittance these days, as can many kitchen appliances like coffee makers or electric can openers.

Cable? In the mountainous rural area where I grew up, you could not pull in a TV signal with an antennae. You had to have cable to get the five channels that were available in those days (ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, and one local station from the capitol city 250 miles away - there was not yet any such thing as MTV, HBO or any of that). So, I happen to know that rural poor families might have cable simply because it is the only way to get television at all. Now, you may consider TV a luxury, but it is important to clarify that "cable TV" does not mean the same thing in every area of the country.

And how about the washer-dryer thing? This is where the passage quoted can be misleading: it doesn't say that poor people own a washer/dryer, it just says they have them. Now, unless someone can show me data to prove otherwise, I believe that most poor people are renters, and most of them live in apartments. Most apartment complexes have coin-op laundry facilities. So, most poor would have access to washers & dryers, even though they do not own them, or a home to put them in. For all we know, the data cited in the article may have included access to a local laundromat as evidence that a poor family, or even a homeless person, had a washer & dryer.

The apartment-life factor also renders the "air conditioning" thing moot. Quite frankly, in all the places I have lived it is quite difficult to find an apartment that does not have air conditioning, or at least a swamp cooler. Maybe things are different in different parts of the country, but I'll bet that where air conditioning is desirable, it is common in apartments, and low-income renter have no control over that. Hell, they might never even turn on the AC to keep their electric bill down, anyway.

Cars? Owning a car isn't always an indicator of convenience. Does it run? Is it registered? Is it reliable? Is it safe? Is it transportation, or is it your home?

My point is, having some stuff does not mean you aren't poor, and the things mentioned in the article are misleading. There are other things which could drive the point home a lot more credibly, in my opinion. For example, if you have enough money to support a two-pack-a-day cigarette habit, you aren't poor. If you support a cig habit and a six-pack of beer every day, you're not poor. If you blow your money on gas for a dumbass SUV when your kid needs a winter coat, you're not only not poor, you're an asshole. If you're a researcher who judges poverty level lifestyles based on an average number of "color TV's" owned by a sample of low-income households, then you have an unrealistic, inaccurate point of view.


Ken Grandlund said...

Well said Shea, and a great debunking of the myth that poverty is not real because of what people have.

Also, many of the lower income workers that have these things get caught up in "rent to own" sscam where everything comes in at a cheap monthly price but payments last for years, making a 300 dollar tv cost around $900.

The Bastard said...

Came here via Bring It On, courtesy of a tip from Ken. Great post! At one point growing up my mom was lucky to be able to give us a pot to pee in but according to the article you cited we were doing just fine. Bullshit! Tuna fish and ring dings for Thanksgiving dinner is not getting by. It's one step above cat food.

Sar said...

Funny how those same researchers don't look at things like proper income or health insurance to gage poverty. Well why should they when they can look at appliances! Ridiculous. I especially appreciated the last paragraph of this post, btw.

(FYI, Shea, my post is up over at Mike's. You can take Wedneseday if you like.)

SheaNC said...

Ken - Thanks. Yeah, that rent-to-own thing really targets the low-income demographic. I remember some rent-to-own tv ads that came off as rather rascist, too.

bastard - Also, thanks for the comments. When you've been there, you have a much better perspective than the researcher can have.

Sar - Thanks for the comments, and also thanks for taking Monday. I kind of forgot that my schedule isn't that great for timely posting - I hoped to get something over there this morning, then hoped after work wouldn't be too late. Wednesday here I come (morning, too)!

windspike said...

Lies, damn lies, and then there are statistics. How about some better numbers to examine - like amount of credit card debt assumed by said folks? Or, number of credit card offers recieved by said folks? Or simply, the amount of indebtidness accrued by said folks - as in, how much interest are they paying out monthly and how much become principle after they failed to cover all interest related charges?

SheaNC said...

Exactly - predatory lenders are definitely part of the problem.

Unadulterated Underdog said...

This reminds me of a cartoon I saw about conservatives once. It showed a bunch of elephants hiding their ears from the truth. The caption read, "See No Deficit, Hear No Deficit, Be No Deficit" or something like that. Republicans have a way of ignoring reality in favor of fantasy dreamlands where everyone votes for the Dubya and goes to church every day of the week. I think they are deranged but the conservative leadership keep their people in rank and file so its hard to get in close enough to be sure. Anyhow, truth and reality aren't even in the GOP handbook. Neither is responsability.

Jack Mercer said...


As I've always said, Americans have no clue or perspective when it comes to poverty. A visit to another country does wonders in lending that perspective.


SheaNC said...

Many Americans do, Jack. Many do.