America’s poor are better off

Last week, I told a CNN reporter, “America is the richest country on Earth because we’ve been able to put capital together and we’ve been able to make our poor somewhat the envy of the world. If you go to India or you go to any number of other third-world countries, you have two problems: you have greater inequality of income and wealth; you also have less opportunity for people to rise from the ‘have-not’ to the ‘have…’  I think America is a good example.  Can we do better? I think we can.“

The observation didn’t go over well with pundits on the left, who called me (among other colorful names) an “intensely ignorant,” “egomaniacal” “villain” -- a “tone-deaf” “ member of the wealthy class,” who was “insensitive”  to “imply that people in poverty in America have it much better than the poor in other countries.” But let’s be clear: I am not implying it. I am stating it outright.


The one thing my many outraged critics had in common -- aside from a heavy reliance on the thesaurus to creatively convey their morally indignant mudslinging -- was a conspicuous absence of factual rebuttals.

That lack of substance is no accident. Because the left can only win this debate precisely so long as it remains in the realm of vague outrage. The left’s entire doctrine of income inequality hinges on its ability to conjure images of an exploited and destitute proletariat toiling in the drudgery of ramshackle Pottervilles (or Issavilles, as my opponents would no doubt suggest). But the reality of poverty in America bears little resemblance to this Dickensian fiction.

Many took umbrage at the suggestion that we should compare ourselves to third-world countries. But America competes with the rest of the world, including third-world countries. When a company opens a new factory, it can choose to open in the United States, where the cost of labor and regulation is more expensive, or it can open in a third-world country offering much cheaper labor. In a very real sense, the American worker is competing with the Indian worker, the Chinese worker, the Mexican worker, and so on. The fact that the quality of life of America’s working class so dramatically outpaces the workers with whom they are competing is no small victory.

Many critics pointed out that our goal should be to lead the whole world, including Europe – not merely to outpace the third-world. It is a fair point. And those classified as poor in the United States are faring quite well, in that regard, too.

Consider that the average poor American lives in a 1,400 square foot dwelling. That’s more space than the average non-poor European citizen can claim. The average resident of the United Kingdom averages 935 square feet of living space. French and Germans average 980 and 968 square feet, respectively.  The average across all of Europe is a mere 857 square feet, across ALL income levels.

Further consider the Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS) conducted every few years by the U.S. Department of Energy. In the most recent data, from 2009, we see that poverty in America looks nothing like the dramatic pictures of homelessness that conspicuously adorn nearly every commentary on income inequality. The median poor family with children in the United States lives in an air-conditioned home with three color televisions, cable or satellite TV, a DVD player, a video game system (such as a Playstation or Xbox), a personal computer, and a kitchen stocked with every necessary appliance, including a refrigerator, both an oven and a stove, a microwave, and a coffee maker. Almost 75 percent own their own car or truck (about a third have two or more). And 42 percent of these households actually own their own home.

More importantly, these trends have steadily improved over time. And it is this fact that gets to the heart of what makes America the “envy” of the world. It isn’t mere material possessions; it is that unique ability, as I said in my interview, “to rise from the ‘have-not’ to the ‘have.’”

Consider that in 1970, only 36 percent of Americans had air conditioning. Today, 80 percent have it– and the remaining 20 percent includes regions of the country where in-home A/C isn’t always common (only 44 percent of residents of the cooler northeastern states use central air conditioning). In 2005, 38 percent of poor Americans had a computer. Just four years later, in 2009, that number had already increased to 50 percent.

The same upward trend is true of income. Despite repeated claims about the supposed destruction of the lower and middle classes, a Congressional Budget Office study showed that, from 1979 – 2007, after-tax income has increased for every segment of the population, including the poor, whose income grew by nearly 20 percent.

And the so-called “classes” are not stagnant. According to the Treasury Department, if you were to look at the top 75 percent of earners from a particular decade, you would find that the people who make up the top 75 percent a decade later are actually different, as Americans continuously advance in their careers and move into higher income brackets.

This explains why the Census Bureau has noted that a snapshot of data over the short-term will cause the poverty level to appear higher than if you look at the data over a longer period of time. At any given time, there is a segment that falls under the poverty line. But, over the long-term, those people are constantly working their way into better positions. And it is that mobility that we must consistently enable.

In a 2014 Pew poll, nearly 60 percent of Americans disagreed that success was largely determined by forces outside our control.” Compare that to the nearly 75 percent of Indian respondents who agreed with the sentiment. Likewise, 73 percent of Americans agreed that working hard was key to getting ahead in life, compared to 25 percent of French respondents, 21 percent of Greek respondents, and 18 percent of Chinese respondents.

John Steinbeck once said that socialism never took root in the United States because Americans see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. Ironically, what he intended as a slight actually serves as an inadvertent tribute to what makes Americans unique: a deeply embedded realization that with hard work, anybody can become the next American success story.

Can Americans do better on income inequality? As I said last week: yes. Absolutely. But we cannot hope to improve if we cannot take honest stock of what has worked and what has not without resorting to character assassination and dishonest exaggeration.

John F. Kennedy rightly noted that a rising tide lifts all boats. It’s a truth we have seen in action over recent decades. James Madison said the “first object of Government” is “the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property,” which will lead to “different degrees and kinds of property.” As Ronald Reagan once said, “You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.” We seek not the guaranteed equality of results, but the equality of opportunity fueled, in the words of Reagan, by “a willingness to believe in ourselves and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds. And, after all, why shouldn't we believe that? We are Americans.”

Issa represents California’s 49th Congressional District and has served in the House since 2001. He sits on the Foreign Affairs and the Judiciary committees.