A think tank believes that the poor are well off

Mike Royko

October 07, 1991|By Mike Royko | Mike Royko,Tribune Media Services

NOW I'M REALLY confused," said Slats Grobnik, slamming down his newspaper. "I don't know if I should give a panhandler a buck or not."

What is the source of your confusion, besides that drink?

"I'll tell you what. Last week I read about how many poor people we got in this country. About 30 million."

Yes, the Census Bureau released that poverty data. Very troubling, the thought of all those hunger-distended bellies, bony ribs and sunken eyes in this, the land of plenty.

"That's what I thought, too. But then I read this thing here in the paper about how the Census Bureau is giving us sort of a con job."

And who says that?

"An outfit in Washington called the Heritage Foundation. You know anything about them?"

I should have suspected. It is a conservative think tank, so it cannot be expected to have compassion for the needy.

"Maybe so, but they come up with some other numbers that make me wonder what's poor and what ain't poor."

What sort of numbers?

"Well, they say that about 38 percent of the so-called poor households own their own homes. And half the homes is worth more than $39,000, and half is worth less. So how can someone be really poor if they own a home?"

Well, you don't get much for $39,000 these days.

"Maybe so, but if it's got a roof and a furnace and running water and a toilet that flushes, that ain't exactly the same as living in a cardboard box under a bridge."

Yes, but these homes might be in rundown old neighborhoods or on the wrong side of the tracks.

"Like where I live, huh? Hey, where does it say in the Constitution that everybody gets to live in Beverly Hills? I figure that if you got a house, you can't be a real wipeout. And it says that 50 percent of the poor got air conditioning where they live."

Naturally, since air conditioning is a necessity. In a warm climate, how can one get a decent night's sleep without it?

"I'll tell you how. When we were kids, and it was hot in the flat, where did we go to sleep? Remember what my old man and your old man did?"

Yes, on hot nights we took pillows and blankets and went to Humboldt Park and slept outdoors. Hundreds of families did that.

"Yeah, and we walked there. You know why my old man had us walk there?"

Of course. Because you didn't have an automobile, and he didn't want to spend money on streetcars.

"Right. But this Heritage outfit says that 62 percent of today's poor households own cars. And 14 percent of them got more than one car. How poor can they be if they can afford a car? They got to have a city sticker, license plates, in some states, insurance. And maybe one of those big cotton dice hanging from the rear view mirror."

But these cars might be clunkers, beaters, rattletraps.

"That's what I drive. My motto is, jumper cables -- don't leave home without 'em. Even if I could afford a fancy car, I'd still have an old beater because in traffic I can scare the yuppies in their fancy Japanese cars to give me room and get out of my way. And what about microwaves?"

What about them?

"It says here that 31 percent of the poor households got microwave ovens. How can that be?"

Why not? It is a modern convenience.

"So is a $5 tin kettle for heating water, which is about all those things are good for. And what's wrong with the regular oven in the stove? Or a frying pan on top of the stove?"

Maybe they don't have a regular stove.

"Then they should sell one of the cars and buy a stove. And here's the number that blows my mind. It says that for every $1 of income that the poor report that they get, they spend $1.94."

That doesn't make mathematical sense.

"It does if you read the rest of it. See, the census people don't count what public housing, Medicaid, food stamps and other welfare stuff is worth. It's like they're saying that a break on your rent, the doctor bill and the supermarket checkout line don't mean anything. I wish I could figure it that way."

You are as lacking in compassion as the Heritage Foundation.

"No, I ain't. Just the opposite. This stuff about all the millions of poor people makes me proud to be an American."

You are proud that we have millions of poor in this country? How revolting.

"No, look at it this way. If I had told my old man: 'Pa, when I grow up, I'm gonna have a little house, one or two cars, air conditioning, a space-age microwave oven, a TV and spend two bucks for every buck that comes in, he would have said: 'Only in America.'"

Yes, but what would he have said if you told him that despite these possessions, you were still classified as poor?

"He would have said: 'Kid, go for it.'"

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