Heritage's Refrigerator-Based Dismissal Of Poverty Wrongly Defines "Typical" Poor Families

August 18, 2011 2:19 pm ET — Jamison Foser


Given the Heritage Foundation's touching concern for the crushing tax burden that keeps billionaires from being able to afford to buy their own vacation homes on the moon, you might assume the conservative think tank is even more worried about the plight of the nation's poor families. Wrong! The poor have it good, Heritage insists, because they own refrigerators and rarely have to sleep in the back seat of a borrowed car.

As the Center for American Progress (CAP) has explained, the central premise of Heritage's argument — that the poor have it good because they own consumer appliances — is inane. Color televisions and microwave ovens simply aren't very expensive: 

First, the electronic devices that Heritage cites are everyday necessities today. Who has iceboxes anymore? Who doesn't need a cell phone to find a job or keep one? Fortunately, these appliances are all significantly cheaper these days, but not so the real everyday basics such as quality child care and out-of-pocket medical costs, both of which have risen much faster than inflation, squeezing the budgets of the poor and middle-class alike.

As CAP notes, if a poor family sold its used refrigerator, it could use the proceeds to buy about eight days' worth of food — and then it wouldn't have a refrigerator, making it more difficult and costly to have healthy food on hand.

So that's the basic problem with Heritage's argument: The "amenities" it uses to show how well-off the poor are simply aren't the expensive luxury items they once were. But there's another problem: Heritage overstates how typical these appliances are among the poor. Here's Heritage Foundation Senior Research Fellow Robert Rector:

[W]hat does it mean to be "poor" in the U.S.? Government data show that the typical poor family with children has a computer, cable TV, air conditioning, a car, multiple TVs, a microwave, and an Xbox in the home.

Rector links a report he published earlier this year, at the end of which is an appendix indicating that 50.8 percent of poor households with children have a personal computer (though little more than a third has Internet access) and 53.9 percent have a video game system and 61.8 percent have cable TV, and so on. Here's the problem: If roughly half of poor families with children have a computer, and roughly half have a video game system, and roughly 60 percent have cable TV, and those amenities are independently distributed, we'd expect only about 15 percent to have all three.

Certainly, then, it would not be accurate to say a "typical" poor family has all three (and more.) And if the amenities are not independently distributed — if all poor households that have a computer also have a video game system and cable television — that means that roughly 40 percent don't have a computer, video game, or cable television. So, again, it would be misleading to say a "typical" poor family has all three amenities if 40 percent don't have any of them. 

Perhaps an analogy will help demonstrate the falsity of Rector's approach: Say you have a group of school children, of which half play soccer, half play basketball, half are in the school band, half are in the drama club, and half are on the debate team. Using Robert Rector's approach, we would conclude that the typical child plays soccer and basketball, and is in band, drama club, and on the debate team. But such a conclusion is inconsistent with both the laws of probability and common sense.

It should be noted that this wasn't a one-time misleading phrasing on Rector's part. He and Heritage regularly peddle the cruel argument that life is sweet for the poor because of ovens and answering machines — and regularly engage in this statistical sleight of hand. Here, for example, is Rector in 2004:

Overall, the typical American defined as poor by the government has a car, air conditioning, a refrigerator, a stove, a clothes washer and dryer, and a microwave. He has two color televisions, cable or satellite TV reception, a VCR or DVD player, and a stereo.

Rector based that statement on findings that "over half own two or more color televisions" and "more than half have a stereo" and "62 percent have cable or satellite TV reception" and so on. In other words, making misleading statements about the frequency with which poor families own all of a given list of amenities isn't an accident at the Heritage Foundation — it's policy.