How many missed meals does it take to be poor?
It's a question at the root of the latest campaign to redefine what it means to be poor in America.
Citing U.S. Department of Agriculture data that he claims shows “just 1 percent of households have someone who is forced to miss a meal” during an average day, Washington Examiner blogger Paul Bedard took up the conservative cause of dismissing poverty by pointing to all the cool things poor people own, like VCRs:
Forget the image of Appalachia or rundown ghettos: A collection of federal household consumption surveys collected by pollster Scott Rasmussen finds that 74 percent of the poor own a car or truck, 70 percent have a VCR, 64 percent have a DVD, 63 percent have cable or satellite, 53 percent have a video game system, 50 percent have a computer, 30 percent have two or more cars and 23 percent use TiVo.
A similar campaign to downplay the scourge of poverty in 2011 was voiced perfectly by Fox's Stuart Varney, who argued:
The image we have of poor people as starving and living in squalor really is not accurate. Many of them have things, what they lack is the richness of spirit.
In fact, what they actually lack is the richness of money to pay for things like food and shelter.
Which brings us back to the question — how many missed meals does it take before one is poor enough to rate?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that nearly 15 percent of U.S. households are “food insecure,” meaning that they'll be forced to miss meals throughout the month because they lack the resources to pay for them.
The problems of poverty and malnourishment in America are central to a documentary generating buzz out of the Sundance film festival, Finding North, that chronicles the plight of real families struggling with food insecurity. In reviewing the film, The Deseret News highlighted the problems one mother faced as she transitioned from food stamps to the ranks of the working poor:
[T]hree months after starting a full-time job and getting off government assistance, she is sending her kids to bed hungry because she is caught in the no-man's land of making too much money to qualify for food stamps but not enough to actually feed her family three times a day.
Contrast the actual problems faced by people transitioning off food stamps with the class warfare rhetoric offered up by Fox Business Network's Charles Payne, who castigated the poor for not being sufficiently ashamed of their poverty:
There's no doubt that these are good programs. I think the real narrative here, though, is that people aren't embarrassed by it. People aren't ashamed by it.
In fact, filmmakers Lori Silverbush and Kristi Jacobson reportedly struggled to find families willing to discuss the problem:
The filmmakers also discovered how many “food insecure” families existed but were unwilling to talk about their experiences out of fear or humiliation. In particular, the women were hoping to get a military family to talk about being on food stamps and experiencing food insecurity, but no such individuals stepped forward — often because they considered speaking about such matters to be unpatriotic.
Bedard argues that Rasmussen “doesn't mean to criticize households with earnings of $22,314, the 2010 poverty level for a family of four,” but adds that according to Rasmussen's polling, “71 percent believe too many [Americans] are receiving federal welfare benefits and would like to see official measures of poverty tightened to reduce the number of eligible participants.”
Bedard never gets around to deciding how many meals that family of four has to miss before they should be eligible.