Poverty just isn't what it used to be

November 26, 1998|By Linda Chavez

AS predictable as our own turkey dinner each Thanksgiving when I was growing up was the story my father told about the year his family could buy only a few slices of baloney for the holiday.

He recalled the pain of standing in the butcher's shop with barely enough money to pay for lunch meat for his mother and four siblings, while those around him bought plump turkeys, yams and cranberries. He described taking the meat home wrapped in butcher paper tied with a string, which he later used in his shoes in place of the laces he couldn't afford.

The story, and dozens like it, always made me feel a bit guilty for never having suffered the grinding poverty my father knew. Yet my own childhood in the 1950s was far from privileged.

Until I was a teen-ager, we lived in tiny basement and attic apartments, sometimes sharing a bathroom with several other families. Although we never went hungry, my father was often out of work, especially during the winter months in Denver, when it was too cold to paint houses. We got by because my mother worked in restaurants and department stores year-round.

Generational change

Today, my children's experiences are as far-removed from those of my childhood as mine were from my father's. Like many Americans, my family's history is one of seemingly endless upward mobility, fueled by educational opportunity and an expanding economy. What is amazing is not how unusual our story is, but how common. It is the typical American story: from rags to riches -- or at least respectability -- in a single generation.

Unlike in virtually every place else in the world, it is possible to grow up poor in the United States and achieve a secure and comfortable life, if not actual wealth. Americans swap places on the economic ladder more than people of all other nations.

A study by the Urban Institute a number of years ago, for example, showed that nearly half of those people whose income was in the lowest 20 percent of all Americans' moved up to a higher quintile within 10 years, while a similar proportion of those in the highest income quintile actually moved down.

A rich nation

But it is not just individual mobility that accounts for the fact that most Americans are better off than their parents and grandparents were. In fact, as a nation we are richer today than at any point in our history. We now take for granted as necessities items that only a few years ago would have been beyond the reach of even the most wealthy.

Virtually all homes, including those of the poor, have telephones, color television sets, microwaves and VCRs. As Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation noted recently, nearly 40 percent of poor people own their own homes, 62 percent own a car, nearly half of all poor households have air-conditioning, nearly a third own microwave ovens.

Compare this with what average Americans owned just a generation or two ago. More poor people today own televisions and refrigerators than middle-income Americans did in 1950. In 1930, fewer than half of all households had any form or refrigeration; less than 1 percent of Americans lack refrigerators now.

In a different way, this is what my father was trying to tell me with his story. The point was not to make me feel sorry for him but to make me grateful that life was so much better for me. Generations of Americans have worked hard so that their children could have better lives than they did, and they have largely succeeded.

Along with remembering the poor during the holiday season, perhaps we should also be thankful that there are fewer poor people now than in the past -- and that the poor are not as poor as they used to be.

Linda Chavez is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/265/98

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