Are You Poor If You Have a Flat-Screen TV?

The ability to own TVs and cellphones is not an accurate measure of how much economic security a family has.


At first glance, it may seem like a family with a computer, smartphones and a flat-screen TV is doing fairly well for itself.

But don’t be so quick to judge. According to Annie Lowrey with The New York Times, it’s not that easy to recognize the face of the poor in America.

Yes, the material well-being that some of the poor enjoy today was unimaginable to even the wealthy in years past. But the prices of consumer goods like TVs, phones, clothing, and small appliances have plummeted in the last 10 years, so it’s hardly a basis for defining the modern poor, Lowrey writes.

“If you handpick services and goods where there has been dramatic technological progress, then the fact that poor people can consume these items in 2014 and even rich people couldn’t consume them in 1954 is hardly a meaningful distinction,” said Gary Burtless, an economist at the Brookings Institution.

“That’s not telling you who is rich and who is poor.”

Although consumer goods are relatively cheap these days, some essential services that could make strides in lifting families out of poverty – like health care, child care and college tuition and fees – are out of reach for America’s poor.

So, the plight of the poor still looks pretty bleak, regardless of any perceived material wealth. The Times said:

“Without a doubt, the poor are far better off than they were at the dawn of the War on Poverty,” said James Ziliak, director of the University of Kentucky’s Center for Poverty Research. “But they have also drifted further away.”

Slate columnist Jordan Weissman wrote that if you want to get a broad picture of the troubles facing the poor, forget about the “stuff.”

Nobody is suggesting that the main problem the poor face today is a lack of stuff. It’s a lack of security, an inability to cover basic recurring expenses, like utilities and rent, as well as major unexpected costs like medical care.

An effort to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour has stalled in the Senate. Democrats failed Wednesday to rally the super-majority of 60 votes needed to defeat a Republican filibuster of the wage raise proposal.

Stacy Johnson

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