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Jewish World ReviewOct. 25,1999 /15 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Thomas Sowell

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Creating "poverty" -- SOME PEOPLE worry about the exhaustion of petroleum deposits and others worry about the disappearance of forests. But the political left has a much more immediate concern -- the danger of running out of "the poor" who are used to justify the expansion of government programs.

While others may worry about this, the Census Bureau is doing something about it. It is planning to redefine "poverty." They want to raise the upper limit of the poverty income by about $3,000. If they succeed, that will create millions more "poor" people with the stroke of a pen. Then do not be surprised to see media hysteria about the growth of poverty in affluent America.

Most people have no idea how many of the political "crises" we hear about are generated just by the way words are used. There was a time when poverty referred to a lack of food, shelter or clothing. Today, it refers to earning an income below a level arbitrarily selected to keep poverty alive and big enough to maintain political support for big-government programs.

Despite clever definitions used to keep "hunger" alive on paper -- and on TV -- whenever actual flesh-and-blood human beings are examined medically, there is little or no difference found between the nutrition of low-income and high-income Americans. Both get more than the required nutrients and there is in fact a tendency for the poor to be overweight more often than the rich.

Most Americans living below the official poverty level today own their own clothes dryer, microwave oven, color TV and VCR -- things that most Americans, in or out of poverty, did not own in 1971. No wonder the Census Bureau has to keep jacking up the definition of poverty, in order to keep the poor from disappearing and leaving big-government advocates without one of their key arguments for spending and taxing.

In an era when a Timex keeps about as good time as a Rolex, and when no-name jeans wear just as well as jeans that have someone's name written across your backside, are we talking about hardships or not keeping up with the Joneses? No doubt there are people who suffer actual privation, even if it is not due to a lack of money but to their own mishandling of the money they have.

Karl Marx was poor in that sense and his family sometimes suffered hunger and other very real deprivations, even though Marx's known sources of income were sufficient for them to have lived a lot better than they did. He spent money like a teenager all his life, frittering away inheritances on various self-indulgences and then got angry at bill collectors who wanted him to pay the bills he had run up.

Your average 'poor' guy?
Nothing is going to stop that kind of poverty. Some sports and entertainment figures who made millions during their careers have ended up broke. A homeless man from a wealthy eastern family literally died in the gutter in San Francisco a few years ago.

Talk about "the poor" is grossly misleading when it suggests that these are an enduring class of people. Most of the people in the bottom 20 percent rise out of that bracket inside of a decade. Indeed, more of them end up in the top 20 percent inside a decade than remain at the bottom.

Neither "the poor" nor "the rich" nor the people in between stay put. Yet intellectuals and politicians are always bemoaning the disparities between various income brackets, without paying the slightest attention to the fact that people are constantly moving in and out of all those brackets.

If you are talking about people, rather than about brackets, most poverty disappears as people get older and move up the economic ladder. Only 3 percent of the American population remains in the bottom 20 percent for as long as 8 years.

Incidentally, these 20 percent brackets usually do not refer to 20 percent of people, but to quintiles of households or families. There are 39 million people in the bottom quintile and 64 million in the top quintile. How surprised, shocked or outraged should we be to discover that 64 million people usually earn more than 39 million people?

The Census Bureau wants to increase the amount of income used to define poverty for a family of four. But families of four do not suddenly appear out of thin air. Are we to say that people who do not yet have enough income to support a family of four should go right ahead and have children, leaving it to the government to support them because the Census Bureau has jacked up the poverty definition?


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©1999, Creators Syndicate