Activist's harsh words make waves

Are the poor desperate? A media myth, he says.

Posted: September 04, 2011

Alfred Lubrano

is an Inquirer staff writer

The poor are not so bad off.

Many have DVD players, air conditioners, cellphones, refrigerators, and cable television. Hunger and homelessness afflict relatively few.

So says Robert Rector, a well-known conservative writer/activist and tea-party darling.

He contends that media outlets mislead Americans into thinking the poor are desperate when, in fact, most people below the federal poverty level - $22,050 a year for a family of four - live relatively comfortable lives.

Countering Rector's claims, experts who study poverty call his work "pseudo-social science" and accuse him of twisting facts to promulgate a right-wing agenda.

Regardless of how he's perceived, Rector is known for having the ear of U.S. policymakers.

For 20 years, Rector, 60, a research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, has huddled with Republicans in Congress to devise plans to limit benefits for the poor.

Many credit his analysis of American poverty for helping to alter the welfare system in 1996, when it morphed from an entitlement program to one that requires recipients to get jobs or training.

"What Grover Norquist is to income taxes, Rector is to poverty programs," said Sheldon Danziger, director of the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan. Norquist is the antitax advocate who claims 236 U.S. House members and 41 senators as signatories to his famous no-tax-increase pledge.

"Rector is very, very influential with House Republicans and has been for years," Danziger said.

Rector's latest report for the Heritage Foundation - centered on air conditioners and other "amenities" among the poor - was released in July and has been widely disseminated in newspapers around America.

Conservative radio and television personalities, including Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly, often cite Rector's work.

"It is really extraordinary to think about these conveniences that are enjoyed by these people," O'Reilly recently said in reference to Rector's statement that 78 percent of poor families have air-conditioning and 64 percent have cable or satellite TV.

That's echoed by conservative activists and bloggers such as Jennifer Stefano, cochair of the Loyal Opposition of PA, a tea-party group in the Philadelphia suburbs.

"If you can afford a microwave and cable TV, I don't see how the government can call you poor," Stefano said. "The idea of poverty is not what most Americans think it is."

In an interview, Rector said that while the federal government says 40 million Americans are poor, he wants to "put to rest the myth that the poor all live in shacks whose foundations are collapsing."

"The average American is quite shocked to hear about all that the poor actually have," Rector said. "But there's this constant clamor that we have all these hungry and undernourished people. That hasn't been true for 30 years."

Rector said he did not want to eliminate social programs such as food stamps and welfare. But he said the government was spending too much on people who have become dependent on federal largesse and should be "encouraged to work more."

Rector said he based his findings on federally collected data about U.S. households.

Not everyone is impressed with Rector's research.

"To me, this is just a joke," said Mark Rank, professor of social welfare at Washington University in St. Louis. "The basic point that people in poverty are really well off is crazy. It's pseudo-social science."

Rank said 43 percent of U.S. households below the poverty line experienced food insecurity - having too little money at times during a year to buy food. But among households at 185 percent of poverty or higher, the rate of food insecurity is just 2.7 percent.

"There's a huge difference in life above and below the poverty line," Rank said.

Sister Marge Clark, a lobbyist with Network, a Catholic social-justice group in Washington, agreed, adding that air-conditioning is no longer a luxury in America - it keeps people alive. Many parents use cable TV as a substitute for baby-sitting that they cannot afford, or as a way to keep children inside in unsafe neighborhoods, she said.

Besides, said Timothy Smeeding, director of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin, air conditioners can cost less than $100 and DVD players can be had for about $25.

And because so many people fall into and out of poverty, these appliances could have been purchased before a person who had been working was laid off, Smeeding said.

Smeeding denigrated Rector's methodology, saying Rector "decides what conclusion to make, then finds evidence to support it."

Ultimately, measuring poverty by appliances owned is incomplete research, said Ralph da Costa Nuñez, president of the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness in New York.

"I'm no liberal, but I know that poverty is a struggle that's about a lot of things: poor education, domestic violence, poor food, and other societal ills," he said.

And, he added, Rector's work does not take into account a growing trend in a country beset by a dismal economy: poverty nomads. They are families that double- and triple-up with relatives to survive - about six million Americans at last count.

Aware of his many critics, Rector said that "the basic things I say are true."

And, he added, "I never said abolish programs to help the poor. I may not be as fearsome as people say."


Contact staff writer Alfred Lubrano

at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.

 

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