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Monday, November 7, 2011

If You're Poor and You Don't Know It. . .

Speaking from a purely financial perspective, I have marveled for over two years that I am doing the best I've ever done and yet, compared to many others, I'm not doing very well at all. Today I was listening to an NPR story about the new paradigm for defining poverty and you can imagine my shock when I realized that, not only am I not driving a Maserati or living in a $500,000 McMansion, I may actually be living in poverty!

OK, I don't actually fall below the poverty line by either the new or old definition. But, as part of the story, an NPR reporter interviewed the head of the food stamp program in Mississippi. The interview revealed that a family of four in Mississippi may receive up to $650 or so in food stamp benefits per month.

I recently launched what I consider a conservative but livable home budget for my family of four. Our monthly allocation for food? $600.00 per month. Plus another $75.00 per month for dining out (mainly trips to McDonald's or Arbys on the way home from late nights at the ball park). A total of $675.00 per month, to include school lunch expenses. Total.

And, according to John Davis, the SNAP Director in Mississippi, food stamps aren't even supposed to be the sole source of food for recipients. They're supposed to be a supplement. Which means most qualified SNAP recipients are expected to spend more per month on food than I do!

Every time I see one of those commercials for Feed the Children or some similar charity program where they tell you it only costs $0.30 per day to feed a child, I ask myself, "Where do they do their grocery shopping?" That's where I need to shop. My wife actually does an amazing job of keeping groceries in the pantry on our present budget. Still, the idea that I could drop that food budget down to roughly $36.00 per month? Approximately 5% of what "poor" people are expected to spend on food in a month? That's pretty alluring.

My point is that I don't believe either the previous nor the new formula for determining poverty could possibly be very accurate. Either that, or there's a pretty easy solution to the whole poverty problem.

Mr. Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation says, "Over 80 percent of poor families have air conditioning, two-thirds of them have cable TV, half of them have computers, a third of them have widescreen HDTVs." Not sure where he got those numbers, but I'd say he's probably about right. I'd love to know the numbers for poor families who smoke or own pets. Or who make car payments.

If I'm doing as well as I am and I'm spending less on food than food stamp recipients, we definitely have a disconnect from reality somewhere in this chain. Perhaps part of the problem is the current atmosphere of "political correctness" (a misnomer if ever there was one) which discourages us from calling a spade a spade. Maybe there should be more of a stigma attached to being "poor." If I'm going to be poor, I should know I'm poor. Then I'd realize that I should probably watch my spending. Maybe drop the cable TV, sell the big screen, and perhaps eat some raman noodles a couple of times a week. Like I did when I was really, truly poor.

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