Let them eat cellphones!

Today the Christian Science Monitor — which in general has been doing some outstanding reporting since going online-only last year — hands over a page in its business section to the old argument, favored by conservatives, that poverty rates don’t really measure poverty, because they don’t account for increases in the standard of living. And what does the Monitor (and the economist it cites, Notre Dame’s James Sullivan) come up with?

For examples, back in 1960:

  • A 21-inch black-and-white Philco tabletop TV cost about $1,800 in today’s dollars and could receive only a handful of channels;
  • A refrigerator with freezer cost the equivalent of $1,510 in today’s dollars;
  • A two-speed automatic washing machine, primitive by today’s standards, cost the equivalent of $1,100;
  • Only 12 percent of homes had air-conditioning (versus 84 percent last year);
  • Only 8 percent of the population had completed four years of college (versus 27 percent today).

That’s all well and good, but when most of us think about poverty in 1960, it’s not the horrors of not being able to watch the Golf Channel. (As Superchunk’s Jon Wurster said before attempting a cover song at last night’s show: “If you’d told me in 1982 that I’d be looking up Misfits lyrics on a cellphone … I’d have asked, ‘What’s a cellphone?’”) Rather, it’s not having enough food, or livable housing, or the knowledge of where your next dollar was coming from — in other words, the same stuff that the poverty rate measures today, albeit imperfectly.

To be fair, Sullivan does say that “the great recession is a significant setback,” and worries that advances in access to washing-machine techology, et al., have come to a halt. Still, putting the focus on technological improvements, instead of the bread-and-butter issues that continue to define poverty in the U.S., only gives fodder to those who’d argue that poverty is no longer an issue because the rich and poor alike have the right to sleep under air-conditioned bridges.

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