This debate over what appliance ownership by the poor means for their well being and its impact on the perception of poverty by the public has a long history in housing policy and is at least as old as the public housing program. For example, historian Larry Vale has identified suggestions as early as the 1940s to “expose public housing” for not serving its intended purpose with photos of television aerials on public housing (Vale, 2000 pg. 238). A recent exchange between the Heritage Foundation and the Center for American Progress has once again highlighted this debate.
The exchange began with a research brief from the Heritage Foundation, published July 19, using recent Department of Energy data to compare the number and type of appliances poor and middle class households own. The report found that households defined as poor typically have similar numbers and types of appliances as higher income households. The brief is a follow-up to similar research released in 2007.
According to the report, the average poor household in the Department of Energy’s Residential Energy Consumption Survey had air conditioning, two color televisions and cable, a microwave, a refrigerator, and an oven and a stove, and more living space than the typical European. After tracking the ownership of various appliances by Americans over time and composing an index of appliances to allow a comparison across households with different mixes of appliances, the brief reviews recent depictions of poverty in the U.S. and foreign news media. It concludes that the material deprivation of poverty is grossly exaggerated by news media and advocates, and that by better measuring poverty, assistance could be better targeted at those who are truly “short on food” or “homeless.”
On August 5, the Center for American Progress responded with a number of criticisms but primarily by pointing out that used appliances cannot be converted into sufficient income to buy significant amounts or food or housing. Based on recent eBay and Craigslist postings (there was no consideration in the Heritage study of the age or condition of the goods in poor households), the authors calculated that the entire basket of appliances owned by the average poor household could be sold for $1625, roughly equivalent to two and half times the $677 in rent and utilities the average poor household pays each month. Just the refrigerator, which poor renters are unlikely to actually own, would generate eight days of meals if the food could be kept from spoiling.
While clearly set in opposition to one another, together these writings highlight important aspects of poverty today:
1) The poverty measure does not account for wealth of any kind, non-cash assistance, or local costs. Households under the poverty threshold experience economic hardship and what the Heritage authors call material deprivation to varying degrees depending on how far below the threshold a household is and the other supports in their lives.
2) Many luxuries of past generations, such as cellular phones have become relatively inexpensive necessities over time. This changes the definition of material deprivation, though the perception of poverty often lags.
3) Ownership of consumer durables, the asset class most likely to be owned by poor households, is not equivalent to financial or other forms of wealth that have the potential to appreciate and can be exchanged more readily for cash to help a family in times of need.
The Heritage Foundation report, “Air Conditioning, Cable TV, and an Xbox: What Is Poverty in the United States Today?” by Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield, can be found at http://thf_media.s3.amazonaws.com/2011/pdf/bg2575.pdf
The Center for American Progress response, “What You Need When You’re Poor: Heritage Foundation Hasn’t a Clue” by Melissa Boteach and Donna Cooper, is available at http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2011/08/heritage_poor.html/print.html