A top Romney adviser has come out with a brilliant definition of wealth: if you have a computer, six or more rooms, a dishwasher, clothes washing appliances, a microwave or a cell phone, you’re not poor because other Americans ten years ago didn’t have these things. Never mind that the prices of those products has dropped enough over the last few years to make them not only affordable, but a necessity, or that healthcare, food and other staple goods’ prices have dramatically risen while percentage of income going to the lower classes has dropped — you’re not poor.
In an editorial written for The Wall Street Journal, Kevin Hassett and Aparna Mathur make the stunning argument that because more people have possessions it somehow negates the black-and-white income disparity in the United States. In effect, they argue that it really doesn’t matter that the rich are getting richer — you still have a microwave, right?
Igor Volsky of Think Progress quotes the editorial (emphasis his):
Yet the access of low-income Americans—those earning less than $20,000 in real 2009 dollars—to devices that are part of the “good life” has increased. The percentage of low-income households with a computer rose to 47.7% from 19.8% in 2001. The percentage of low-income homes with six or more rooms (excluding bathrooms) rose to 30% from 21.9% over the same period.
Appliances? The percentage of low-income homes with air-conditioning equipment rose to 83.5% from 65.8%, with dishwashers to 30.8% from 17.6%, with a washing machine to 62.4% from 57.2%, and with a clothes dryer to 56.5% from 44.9%.
The percentage of low-income households with microwave ovens grew to 92.4% from 74.9% between 2001 and 2009. Fully 75.5% of low-income Americans now have a cell phone, and over a quarter of those have access to the Internet through their phones.
They also state that the Democratic opposition to income disparity is a “left-wing critique of capitalism.” Well, at least they’re being more honest; admitting that they think that the rich should get richer and the poor should get poorer is a step in the direction of honesty. However, as Think Progress goes on to say,
But this argument, a favorite of conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, is highly misleading. Appliances and commonly used consumer gadgets like cell phones are necessities in the 21st century and are significantly cheaper today than they were just decades earlier. In fact, were families to sell their appliances in order to help pay for food and other basic necessities, many would still struggle — for while prices on microwaves and air conditioners have fallen, “the real everyday basics such as quality child care and out-of-pocket medical costs” are “squeezing the budgets of the poor and middle-class alike.”
What these people don’t seem to realize is that income differences aren’t measured by what possessions are in which house. It’s measured by the percentages of total income taken in by each class. You can get a microwave for $60. That same amount of money won’t feed your family for even a week in most cases. They also stated that unemployment, food stamps, Medicaid and other benefits close the gap. Not only is that aid not enough, but the fact that the aid is needed invalidates their point.
Think Progress goes on to aptly report:
Their approach would only exacerbate the differences between the rich and poor — a gap that has grown dramatically since the late 1970s. Indeed, compared to the 30 countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the United States has a GINI coefficient — a number that measures the distribution of income on a scale of 0 (perfectly unequal) to 1 (perfectly equal) — of 0.47 and ranks near the very bottom in inequality. America also suffers from the absolute highest “percentage of national income that went to the top 1 percent” and “has seen income inequality increase at a much faster rate than most other countries.”
This trend is already devastating the American democratic ideals of equal opportunity and upward mobility. Unfortunately, neither Romney nor his advisers can see the problem or offer the kind of tax and economic policies that will help solve it.
As someone that grew up quite poor — and yes, we had a microwave — I find their attitude blatantly and directly offensive. They obviously have no idea what it’s like to know that you’ll be waiting out the last few days of the month with no food. They obviously have no idea what it’s like to wait at a food bank with a chance of not even getting anything, sacrificing dignity for the chance to feed your children. They have no idea what it’s like for someone like my mother, who worked two jobs at minimum wage, and yes, received food stamp benefits, but was unable to provide enough to eat for her four children and one grandchild. Yeah, we had a microwave — we also had nothing to put in it.