How ‘Poor’ Are Florida’s Poor?

By: Eric Giunta | Posted: September 17, 2012 3:55 AM
Robert Rector

George Cruikshank illustration for Oliver Twist and Robert Rector

In the minds of most Americans, the word “poverty” may conjure up Dickensian images straight out of "Oliver Twist": lack of access to food, water, shelter and clothing, and basic medical care. But one of the nation’s leading authorities on poverty and welfare reform insists this just isn’t the case.

Most of the 46.2 million persons classified as “poor” by the federal government live quite comfortably, he says.

“Nearly all ‘poor’ persons live in houses or apartments that are in good repair and not overcrowded; in fact, the dwelling of the average poor American is larger than the house or apartment of the average nonpoor person in countries such as France and the United Kingdom,” says Robert Rector in an article published Thursday in National Review, summarizing data from his 2011 report published by the Heritage Foundation, "Understanding Poverty in the United States: Surprising Facts About America's Poor."

“By their own reports, most poor persons in America had sufficient funds to meet all essential needs and to obtain medical care for family members throughout the year whenever needed,” Rector added.

“Some 80 percent of poor adults and 96 percent of poor children were never hungry at any time during the year because they could not afford food. The average consumption of protein, vitamins, and minerals is virtually the same for poor and middle-class children and is well above recommended norms in most cases,” he continues. “Some 80 percent of poor households have air conditioning; nearly two-thirds have cable or satellite TV; half have a personal computer; 43 percent have Internet access; and one-third have a wide-screen plasma or LCD TV.”

Heritage published a follow-up report Sept. 5, detailing Rector’s prescriptions for tackling what he says is the major cause of child poverty: “the absence of married fathers in the home.” The report is titled "Marriage: America’s Greatest Weapon Against Child Poverty."

Sunshine State News interviewed Rector Friday, and asked him how Florida’s poor fared in comparison with those of the nation.

“None of these data sets allow for any type of state breakdown. They’re simply too small. They’re very good at providing national figures but you can’t break them down by state at all,” he says. “I would imagine, having looked at a lot of different data sets, that there is not a whole lot of variation. Florida is a fairly affluent state, so I would guess that Florida’s poor probably look marginally better than the national figures, but not by a whole lot.”

Rector made clear he has no personal antipathy toward the welfare state per se.

“I’m not the least bit libertarian; I very much support the welfare state” he says. “It is a fact that people fall on hard times; people have a limited capacity to support their children, and society believes that we can help these people out and level the playing field a bit.

“But it’s very important to look at how we do that,” he adds. “If you want to level the playing field a bit and help people out who have limited capacity to sustain themselves, you have to be very careful that you’re not making the situation worse by discouraging work and discouraging marriage and other behaviors that are really necessary to achieve self-sufficiency.”

Rector was inspired to research poverty, its root causes, and welfare reform by what he says is continued misrepresentation of the nature of poverty in the mainstream press.

“I first did this kind of research about 20 years ago. I would sit and watch the national news stories about poor people and they would feature homeless families or people living in dilapidated trailers and so forth,” he says. “I’m a social scientist who specializes in this topic and I happen to have access to all this government data that shows that while poor people are not ‘living the life of Riley’ by any stretch of the imagination, their actual living standards are very substantially higher than the typical press account suggests.”

Rector admits that it is precisely the welfare state that keeps the nation’s poor from living up to popular stereotypes. But he insists that what government statistics are measuring is not so much true poverty (though he acknowledges that such situations do exist) but rather a lack of self-sufficiency.

“The goal of the ‘War on Poverty’ was not to prop up people’s living standards through a massive welfare state. Lyndon Johnson, in launching the war on poverty, said that he wanted to deal with the causes of poverty, not merely the symptoms of poverty,” he explains. “He went so far as to say that he intended the war on poverty to reduce the number of people who would receive welfare, and to turn the poor from tax eaters into tax payers. His goal was self-sufficiency, not welfare dependence.

“We have spent over $19 trillion on the war on poverty [since 1964], and individual capacity for self-sufficiency has not increased one iota,” Rector says. “The problem is that the welfare state as it is currently configured actually undermines self-sufficiency by rewarding idleness, penalizing work, rewarding single parenthood, and penalizing marriage. And those factors, particularly when they pass from one generation to another so that low levels of work and the absence of marriage become norms in low-income communities, generate huge populations that are fundamentally incapable of self-support. Exactly the opposite of what Johnson was attempting to achieve.”

Rector tells Sunshine State News that, where single mothers are concerned, there is a direct causal relationship between getting married and rising out of poverty. His “Marriage” report documents several facts that at first glance seem counter-intuitive, but are backed up by hard data: most out-of-wedlock births occur to adult women in their 20s, and only about 8 percent of them to teenagers; the vast majority of unwed fathers are employed and make enough money to lift their children (with their unwed mothers) out of poverty; out-of-wedlock pregnancies “are almost never caused by a lack of access to birth control”; and the vast majority of out-of-wedlock pregnancies are “not purely accidental,” but are “partially intended or at least not seriously avoided.”

In addition to requiring all able-bodied recipients to be employed before being offered assistance, Rector proposes a five-pronged plan for the federal and state governments to combat child poverty:

  • Encourage public advertising campaigns on the importance of marriage that are targeted to low-income communities.
  • Provide marriage education programs in high schools with a high proportion of at-risk youth.
  • Strengthen federal abstinence education programs that provide critical information on the value of marriage to adults, children, and society.
  • Make voluntary marriage education widely available to interested couples in low-income communities.
  • Provide marriage education materials and referrals in taxpayer-funded birth control clinics.

Reach Eric Giunta at egiunta@sunshinestatenews.com or at (850) 727-0859.

Comments (5)

Tara Winters
2:50PM JUN 24TH 2014
Abstinence? Unwed parents? Get a job before we help you?!! This has got to be the most ridiculous thing I've read that somehow actually qualified as news in a very long time. Good luck preaching abstinence, that's obviously been working for thousands of years, lol. Forced marriages! Sounds like a recipe for pure happiness OR prescription for suicide, Valium or lobotomies perhaps.. Get a job before we help you.. Now that's pure genius - completely ignores reasons and barriers as to why one might not have a job already. OH right, this man obviously subscribes to the elitist beliefs of everyone is just dumb and lazy..I have a BA in sociology, this man doesn't even sound like he has a shred of common sense. (Ok, I had to look it up, his education back round is political science. That explains a lot. The real world isn't a chess game...) If this is seriously one of your nations leading authority on poverty and welfare reform, good luck! :(
3:15PM SEP 18TH 2012
Yes, those in poverty are doing just fine in Florida, where a family of three would have a household income of $19,090 a year or less. That works out to be around $17/day per person.

Plenty to buy shelter, food, clothes and even health care. The cost of family health coverage in Florida averaged $15,032 per employee in 2010, according to the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Although this group should be eligible for Medicaid, Florida has 3.8 million people without health insurance, a large number of them children. Around 22% of all children live in poverty in Florida.

Furthermore, the number of those who are actually homeless in Florida would more than fill all the housing in Pensacola, and perhaps all of Live Oak as well.

Yes, those living below the poverty level in Florida have a great life, just as Robert Rector says . . . . guess that's also why comedians such as Colbert have had such fun mocking studies such as these Heritage Foundation reports on America's poor.

They're just laughable.
10:22AM SEP 17TH 2012
Wellfare is a wonderful tool to help those who needs it. If you think that a few food stamps is the answer to the American dream, then guess again. When we stop sending our tax money to other Countries to buy their friendship, Then have them turn on us using our money to supply their needs. guns, bombs, And burning our flags, killing our friends, When we use that money to insrease our social security for people that would like to be secure wirh ther own means, then we can brag about what we are doing for our state and country.
6:30AM SEP 17TH 2012
"Strengthen federal abstinence education programs that provide critical information on the value of marriage to adults, children, and society."

I've also thought our youth should be told on top of how not to get pregnant, why they shouldn't.

Otherwise, that sounds like a good plan. I would add more mentoring for at risk youth, beyond the importance of marraige. Generational poverty is a hard cycle to break if there isn't a parent working on breaking it, or pushing their children to break it.
Robert Rich
4:41AM SEP 17TH 2012
Thanks for the article. Rector is confused about Libertarians: They're all pro voluntary social welfare, and have even set up a model in several countries and Alaska--along with championing interim measures such as the EIC.

For info on people using voluntary Libertarian tools on similar and other issues, please see the non-partisan Libertarian International Organization...

Leave a Comment on This Story

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.