A journalist believes poor people shouldn't be able to afford VCRs, so we went shopping to find out if he's right.
An op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times today claims that America's poor, of whom there are now record numbers, are not as destitute as people think ("poor" is even in scare quotes in the title, "The Upside to Being 'Poor'"). Heralding new data from conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation, columnist Andrew Malcolm writes, "[The Heritage study] paints a dramatically different portrait of poverty in America than the popular conception of stark deprivation." Malcolm then goes on to list the so-called amenities enjoyed by people living below the poverty line in the United States, including VCRs and DVD players, TVs, and air conditioners.
I was interested in how much money someone would need in order to buy a lot of the goods Malcolm and the Heritage Foundation think a poor person shouldn't be able to afford, so I searched Best Buy and Craigslist to get an idea. (I didn't look up the cost of living in an apartment or monthly cable bills, as those fluctuate from city to city.) Below, my calculations:
Flat screen TV: $80
Air conditioner: $50
Xbox 360: $100
DVD player: $15
And there you have it: $375 to buy the whole laundry list of goods Malcolm and the researchers at Heritage are attempting to portray as being well out of the reach of authentically poor people. If you bought them all in one year, that's about $30 a month in entertainment spending, less than many New Yorkers and Angelenos spend on a single bar tab on a Saturday night.
Nobody is arguing that America's poor have it as rough as people in developing countries—I'd much rather be poor in America than poor in the Congo. But to hold up the poor population's very modest toys as evidence they're not in need isn't just inaccurate—15 percent of Americans are now on food stamps—it's also a roundabout way of suggesting that poor people shouldn't be allowed to have the same electronics that come standard in college dorms.