Are There any Poor People In America?

Fairness, class warfare, and social justice are bandied about as reasons for mandated wealth redistribution. There has always been wealth disparity in the United States. The Bible even says that the poor will always be with us. But how poor is poor?

Even the Jubilee principle of returning the land to its original owners after 49 years is not a guarantee that the property holders will do well with it when they get it back (Lev. 25:10, 23; 27:21). Keep in mind that the profit that was gained by the person who had the land during any part of the 49 years got to keep it. What he made on the land was his. Only the land reverted in the 50th year not the profit made from the land. The original owner could turn around in the 51st year and sell it back.

It’s apparent by this law that the original land owners sold it because, casting aside the principle of deferred gratification, they wanted the money now, needed the money because of debt, or wouldn’t or couldn’t work the land.  The borrower is certainly the servant or slave, as some translations have it, to the lender (Proverbs 22:7).

There are gradations of initiative, risk taking, and entrepreneurial savvy in the world. Jesus tells the parable about the man who entrusted a sum of many to two of his servants. One invested the money and made more for his master, while the other buried it in the ground (Matt. 25:14–30). For the inaction of the second servant, he was condemned by his master. He should have at least put the money in the bank to draw some interest.

There’s also the issue of how someone prepared for the future. Did he take advantage of various opportunities for educational advancement? Does he work at whatever job is available at the time no matter what the pay? Does he show up for work on time? Does he work for advancement? How does he spend his time and money? To labor six days per week instead of five produces 52 more days of income per year.

We live in a country that has a standard of living that used to be second to no other nation. The poorest among us, those disenfranchised from their home nation, poor as church mice, could make it America. Yes, there was prejudice and bigotry, and even in some communities an invisible caste system, but those with determination could make it. There is a long history of entrepreneurship in America that has made the poorest among us rich. Consider the following:

  • Forty-three percent of all poor households actually own their own homes. The average home owned by persons classified as poor by the Census Bureau is a three-bedroom house with one-and-a-half baths, a garage, and a porch or patio.
  • Eighty percent of poor households have air conditioning. By contrast, in 1970, only 36 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.
  • Only 6 percent of poor households are overcrowded. More than two-thirds have more than two rooms per person.
  • The average poor American has more living space than the average individual living in Paris, London, Vienna, Athens, and other cities throughout Europe. (These comparisons are to the average citizens in foreign countries, not to those classified as poor.)
  • Nearly three-quarters of poor households own a car; 31 percent own two or more cars.
  • Ninety-seven percent of poor households have a color television; over half own two or more color televisions.
  • Seventy-eight percent have a VCR or DVD player; 62 percent have cable or satellite TV reception.
  • Eighty-nine percent own microwave ovens, more than half have a stereo, and more than a third have an automatic dishwasher.1

These statistics are from 2007. Economic conditions have changed, many of them because of government policies that were designed to help the poor. They had the opposite effect.

“Compare the vision of the poor as presented in the Bible – men without homes, their bodies full of sores, hungry, owning only one tunic – to the circumstances of many poor people in the United States, and the social skewing of the definitions of poverty becomes apparent. To be poor in America often means ‘having less than one’s neighbor’ instead of ‘lacking resources necessary for life.’”2

My parents are children of Italian immigrants. My mother had 11 brothers and sisters. At first, they lived out in the country. I can remember my mother telling our next-door-neighbor a sad story about how she never had a doll growing up. Our neighbor had tears in her eyes.

My mother’s father wanted better opportunities for his children, so he traded their farm land for a three-bedroom home in the city of Carrick, a suburb of Pittsburgh — the boys in one bedroom and the girls in another. All of them prospered in various occupations and business enterprises. Were they poor? Compared to people living in Mt. Lebanon and Squirrel Hill, yes they were. But compared to millions – maybe billions – of people around the world at that time, they were rich. Life was difficult. There were few welfare programs, and when they were offered, many people refused the help (see the film Cinderella Man).

The wealth distributionists are making it easier for people not to achieve. They don’t want to admit that a free economy – free from oppressive regulations, targeted legislation, and political payoffs — lifts all boats. The poor are rescued from their plight by the entrepreneurs who create wealth and prosperity where none existed just 10 or 20 years ago.

  1. Robert Rector and Kirk Johnson, “How Poor Are America’s Poor? Examining the ‘Plague’ of Poverty in America,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder, no. 2064 (August 27, 2007. []
  2. David W. Hall and Matthew D. Burton, Calvin and Commerce: The Transforming Power of Calvinism in Market Economies (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2009), 131 []