Here's How the Poor Really Live

The Pew Research Center on Thursday released a massive report about public opinion. One finding jumped out immediately. Pew had asked respondents about the poor—whether “they have hard lives because government benefits don’t go far enough,” or if “they have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything.” Opinion overall was split, but, as my colleague Danny Vinik noted, it wasn’t evenly distributed. The committed liberals in the survey were overwhelmingly likely to say the poor had it tough. The conservatives were just as likely to say they had it easy.

As it happens, we don’t need a poll to tell us how the poor are doing. We have empirical evidence. It suggests they don’t have it easy at all. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities late last year complied some statistics on people with household incomes below the poverty line, which today would be a little less than $20,000 a year for a family of three. More than half reported difficulty paying for food, living in overcrowded housing, paying rent or mortgages late, or having utilities cut off. The figures for people with incomes up to twice the poverty line were not that much better. Although statistics like that can inflate the extent of true hardship, the phenomenon is real. Luke Shaefer, from the University of Michigan, and Kathryn Edin, from Johns Hopkins, once did a study of “extreme poverty”—people living on less than $2 a day. In early 2011, when they conducted their study, nearly 3 million children lived in such families.