Acton Institute Powerblog

Rethinking Poverty

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The recent budget battle may have sparked new questions for Americans to answer, such as what is poverty and who falls under such a classification? Furthermore, due to its massive debt, government may need a limited role in helping the poor. While Christians who stood behind the Circle of Protection advocated for the protection of programs they claim that benefit the poor, other Christians looked at the debate differently arguing for another way to help the poor. However, despite how we decide to help the poor, is our understanding of what it means to be poor misleading?

In the Washington Examiner, Thomas Sowell answers this question with a resounding yes as he explains how the definition of poverty has been politicized and changed:

Each of us may have his own idea of what poverty means, especially those of us who grew up in poverty. But what poverty means politically and in the media is whatever the people who collect statistics choose to define as poverty.

This is not just a question of semantics. The whole future of the welfare state depends on how poverty is defined. “The poor” are the human shields behind whom advocates of ever-bigger spending for ever-bigger government advance toward their goal.

If poverty meant what most people think of as poverty — people who are “ill-clad, ill-housed, and ill-nourished,” in FDR’s phrase — there would not be nearly enough people in poverty today to justify the vastly expanded powers and runaway spending of the federal government.

Sowell goes further in-depth in his column supporting his arguments with a study from the Heritage Foundation which shows what it means to be “poor” in America.

Using the same study from the Heritage Foundation, Anthony Bradley argues in World Magazine that we need wealth creation to help the poor. Bradley explains how being poor in a wealthy nation is drastically different from being poor in a developing one:

“As the rich get richer, the poor get richer”

That may sound like a ridiculous overstatement but it’s true in the sense that nations that create wealth redefine what it means to be poor. Being poor in a wealthy nation is radically different than being poor in a developing one. The above statement also challenges the zero-sum myth: “As the rich get richer, the poor get poorer,” which has so tainted the understanding of economic imaginations of those in the West.


In fact, to be more specific, 99.6 percent of individuals the federal government defines as “poor” have refrigerators, 97.7 percent have televisions, 78.3 percent live in homes with air-conditioning, and 62 percent live in homes with washing machines. These percentages are only possible in a nation as wealthy as the United States; it certainly is not the case in Sudan.


Political liberals and progressive Christians are vulnerable to accepting zero-sum ideology without taking the time to test those theories against real data and facts. The argument here is not that American poverty is “OK”; the point is to highlight the fact that making public policy decisions about “helping the poor” and “ending poverty” in America needs to take into account how “the poor” actually live in reality. Otherwise we will continue to miss the mark and not help the truly disadvantaged. Our public policy needs to be directed toward people who are truly suffering and stuck in cycles of poverty so that we create the conditions that allow for the possibility of sustainable economic mobility.

Bradley raises a valid point, and based on what it means to be “poor” in America is there an injustice and disservice being committed to the poor in developing countries?

Both authors demonstrate the battle is over how we definite what it means to be poor. Unfortunately though, we are now faced with asking ourselves how politics have affected our definition of poverty, and, with the politicization of poverty, have we forgotten what it really means to be disadvantaged? In terms of what poverty means, the questions we face are not easy to answer, they’ll need a prudential approach rooted in Christian values.

Louie Glinzak


  • tz

    Of course the unborn of today who make it out of the womb will be the ones who have to pay for the “poverty” programs today.  Debt is when “Other people’s money” is the people who are children or not yet born.

  • Doesn’t the question of growing economic disparities need to figure into a discussion like this.  Isn’t part of the issue that while the income of the wealthiest classes has skyrocketed over the last forty years, everyone else’s has stagnated?  Otherwise it sounds a bit like, “hey, you got refrigeration. Quit your complaining.” 

    • Anonymous


      A well written article that addresses wealth inequality
      while looking at development can be found by Rev. Sirico (it is far more
      articulate than I can be) and I would like to point you in its direction: While there are wealth inequalities between the rich and the poor, the poor are still better off now than they were one-hundred, fifty, or even ten years ago (and the poor in the United States are better off than the poor in Bangladesh for example). That is a step in the right direction, and I wouldn’t want to reverse such accomplishments just so the inequality gap is closer.

      A few statistics that are also helpful have been published by the U.S. Census Bureau. Furthermore, as the Heritage study demonstrates, all incomes since the beginning of the 20th century have nearly increased sevenfold after adjusting for inflation. That is another great accomplishment that demonstrates the near even increase of all incomes across the board.

      According to the U.S Census Bureau, in 1970, the mean amount
      of households whose income was classified in the lowest one fifth, in terms
      adjusted for current dollars (in strict dollar term and not adjusted for
      inflation), were making $1,992. In 2009 that number rose to $11,552. According
      to the same data, when looking at each classification and the top 5 percent,
      from 2000 to 1990 each group saw between a 14 and 20 percent increase in income (I may also add the top 5 percent did not see the highest increase in income based on percentages). I would argue that this is not the wealthiest classes seeing their income skyrocket. Income increases, percentage wise, remain fairly relative for each income classification from 1970-2009.

      Just because the lowest income earners saw a percentage
      increase doesn’t mean there are not problems. They still need help, but I’m
      demonstrating that there was a similar amount of increase in all incomes across
      the board, not a skyrocket in income just for the wealthy classes. Again, like
      Rev. Sirico explains in his article, and as I stated earlier, the poor are
      better off now than they were before. This can also be seen by the study
      conducted by the Heritage Foundation when such a large percentage of those
      classified as being in poverty in America have modern conveniences.
      What the Heritage Study demonstrates is the increase of the standard of living
      the poor have achieved in the United States. This must be taken into account when discussing poverty in the United States. Furthermore, what also must be
      accounted for is the loss of income due to taxes. If taxes are taken into account,
      the top one percent of tax filers cover 39.38 percent of federal income taxes
      while the top half pay 96.93 percent. This means the bottom half pay 3.03
      percent of federal income taxes ( This effects how much money one actually possesses. The numbers I cited also do not take into account the support the impoverished in America receive through the government. Such support also increases their standard of living and the resources they have to purchase food items and other staples. Another variable that isn’t measured by income is cost of living which varies depending on location.

      I’m not arguing that “hey, you got refrigeration. Quit your
      complaining.” There are impoverished people within the United States who need
      help, however, I’m trying to show a discrepancy in what it may means to be poor
      while raising the questions that has being “poor” been politicized, and, if so,
      does that do a disservice to those in developing countries who are far more
      disadvantaged than the poor who have refrigeration, cable television, air
      conditioning, etc?

      • Thanks, Louie, first of all for the response.  And I don’t want to disparage your point about global poverty versus poverty in the US.  I’m no economist by any stretch, but I find your numbers hard to reconcile with those advanced by, say, Paul Krugman, which clearly suggest that income gap between rich and poor is clearly growing. Take an article like this for example:

        • Anonymous



          Paul Krugman and the other Slate article you cite credit the
          Piketty-Saez study. However, many economists have pointed out problems with how
          the Piketty-Saez study mathematically calculated their numbers. One articulation
          of mathematical problems was published as an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal.
          I do not have access to the archived articles on the Wall Street Journal,
          however, the Op-Ed was republished by the Cato Institute (


          Some more disputes I have with the cited articles are their
          numbers use the median instead of the mean. The numbers I posted from the U.S.
          Census Bureau, which I honestly don’t know how they can be claimed as
          inaccurate even if it doesn’t align with Paul Krugman’s arguments (please keep
          in mind, the U.S. Census Bureau has no political agenda whereas the articles
          you cite clearly do), use the mean, which is another term for the average. A
          simple way to describe how the median is found is all the numbers are put on a
          number scale in ascending order and the number that is exactly in the middle is
          the median. The median can be very easily affected by numbers that lie heavily
          on either the lower or higher end of the number scale.


          The article also cited claims: “Economic growth was more
          sluggish in the aughts, but the decade saw productivity increase by about 20
          percent. Yet virtually none of the increase translated into wage growth at
          middle and lower incomes, an outcome that left many economists scratching their
          heads.” Again, according the same figures I used earlier provided by the U.S.
          Census Bureau this statement is entirely incorrect. Middle and lower classes
          between 2000-2009 (the decade described in the above quote as the aughts) saw
          an increase of 20-14 percent in their income. I wouldn’t describe that as the seeing
          virtually no increase in wage growth at the middle and lower incomes.


          Another article I would recommend reading which
          discusses the economic and moral problems with distributism (the beliefs
          advocated by many on the left to solve “income inequality”) is called Beyond
          Distributism (

          • Thanks, Louie.  Interesting stuff. 

  • Usarownow

    Silly me, I thought poverty related to the spirit of a person rather than his changeable station in life. What was that old Elanor Roosevelt thought, something like: “only those who believe themselved to be poor are poor”.  Your correct, the word poverty is used by those who call themselves politicians to defame others.  Additionally, to rephrase Jesus…’the wealthy we will always have with us’.

  • Roger McKinney

    By UN world standards ($3/day), there are no poor in the US at all.

    And yes, inequality needs to be discussed. Many things cause inequality, most of them natural, such as age and marital status. All inequality figures are household based, so a married couple with two incomes will be much richer than a single mom household.

    But some things cause inequality that are criminal. The most egregious being the banking system that rewards those in financial services by giving them new money first, before prices have risen. They get to borrow at zero interest today and loan to the government and earn a risk free profit. Then the new money filters down to the working poor last, who get a wage increase after prices have risen and for less than the rise in prices.

    The monopoly on money by the Fed and the preferences given to the financial services industry by the state are major causes of inequality.

  • As a case-in-point, my church has a fair-sized community of Eritrean and Ethiopian refugees. Last year my wife and I befriended a couple. At that time we were engaged and scraping to afford our wedding (which, thank God, was way under the average cost). Every paycheck some new expense had to be payed. We could save little and spend little on ourselves. It was frustrating. Our combined income did not put us over the U.S. poverty line by far.

    However, when we had this couple over or talked with them during coffee hour at church, they would constantly say to us, “You are so rich!” And I would think to myself, “Oh yeah. They’ve been living for the last five years on a cup of rice a day in an Ethiopian refugee camp….” And I would realize that they were right, and that it was damaging to my soul to view myself in any other way.

    They received help from our church, Lutheran Social Services, and various government programs. It may be that in certain cases such state aid needs to be protected (they would probably still be in a refugee camp in Ethiopia without it), but that does not affect the very valid point of Louie’s post.

    • Roger McKinney

      Good post! I have traveled in third world countries and seen real poverty. Like you I feel ashamed when I complain.

  • I love Thomas Sowell

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