With income inequality at the center of the national political debate this year, it should be no surprise that conservatives and liberals are coming down on opposite sides of the tracks.
Conservatives point to spending patterns, saying consumption is a better indicator of living standards than income. Using that metric, the nation's poor are living better than they have been in decades, enjoying many of the amenities that the middle class have.
"People are not as badly off as you think," said Aparna Mathur, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning organization.
Liberals, however, counter by saying that while electronics and appliances have become more affordable, basic necessities such as child care, health care and transportation have not. These costs have left the poor struggling to make ends meet.
And, as is my wont, I'll split that down the middle. You see, I've actually lived in an extremely poor neighborhood for several years, and while that often gets dismissed with a wave of a hand ("That's anecdotal!"), it struck me as being "real life".
For instance, my next-door neighbor made less than $25,000 a year. But he had season tickets for the Cleveland Browns. Decent seats, too. 10 games/year, two tickets at $40/each, tailgating before the games, beers and dogs during. He was spending 5% of his income on football, easily.
While at first blush I ridiculed his decision, I also instantly knew that this was what made his life tolerable. Better than tolerable- it was what he lived for. He was exultant every Saturday, because even though the Browns always sucked, his world was going to be glorious tomorrow.
It struck me. Am I elated 10 Sundays a year? I had to confess I was not. Maybe he knew something I didn't.
We all make decisions. Spending 5% of my income on sports doesn't make sense to me, but it made perfect sense to my old neighbor. He was badly off in many ways. His house was filthy and dilapidated. His car was always being tinkered with because it was always falling apart. He never went on a vacation. Their teeth. Oh, wow, they never went to a dentist.
But if you asked him, he lived well. I know, because I did ask. Those football events enriched him. I learned to stop worrying about his 'plight' and simply accepted him as a friend.
We can look down our nose on him if we choose to, but quality of life is relative and self-defined. He had cable TV also. But the dentist just wasn't important to him or his wife. I'm exactly the opposite. It doesn't make him a bad guy, just somebody with a different set of values. If he was stealing from me? Well, then he would have been a bad guy. He was poor by most standards, but he had integrity and a self-esteem.
Several conservative researchers, however, say that Americans don't have a true idea of what living in poverty means.
The average household defined as "poor" in 2005 had air conditioning, cable TV and a DVD player, according to government statistics cited by Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. If there were children in the home, the family likely had a game system, such as a Microsoft (Fortune 500) Xbox or Sony ( ) PlayStation.,
Poor Americans had more living space than average Europeans and were not hungry, Rector said.
"If you took the typical poor household and put them on TV, no one would think they are poor," he said. "They struggle to make ends meet, but they are not in any type of deprivation."
This is where the lack of perspective really hammers at us. Most Americans haven't traveled abroad. If you want to see poverty on a grand scale, sure, you could go to Detroit, but travels to other countries show a great difference.
I'll never forget going to Ecuador and learning the per capita annual income was $900. I was making that every few days prior to 2009. Wrap your head around that. $3/day! Small houses; meals with loads of rice, beans, and potatoes, not much meat or vegetables; few cell phones or other gadgets; cars with multiple owners and shared, if owned at all. And yet, they were getting on with their lives, and I dare say that as a people, seemed happier than Americans.
Or, a trip to Costa Rica. We visited a mountain village. I marveled at the construction of the houses. The materials were thin, the wires exposed, the air flowed through because the walls weren't sealed to the gables, the average entire house the size of my living room. The most delightful, generous people.
The average Ecuadoran or Costa Rican wasn't living with as much wealth as the poorest in America. That was plainly obvious. Plainly.
On the whole, I think we worry here too much. We stick our noses into other people's business, because we're so full of ourselves that we think we know better how other people should live. This applies to the right and the left.
People make decisions based on their own value systems, towards their own happiness. We may not understand their decisions. They do not necessarily constitute 'problems'.