Can poor people have HDTVs?

Being counted as poor in America doesn't mean you're doing without cable, air conditioning and video games.

By Karen Datko Aug 2, 2012 6:56PM

Image: Watching television (© Digital Vision Ltd./SuperStock)Poverty is in the news again: "US poverty on track to reach 46-year high" says a headline in The Washington Post.


And so is the topic of what constitutes poverty in the U.S. Just how bad is it? Muses a CNNMoney headline: "Are you poor if you have a flat-screen TV?" The article says:

For instance, some 62% of households earning less than $20,000 annually owned between two and four televisions, according to the 2009 Residential Energy Consumption Survey, conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy. That compares to 68% of those earning $120,000 or more.
About one-third of the lowest income households had either LCD or plasma TVs. Granted, that's less than half the share of the highest income group, but conservative researchers say it's a sign that the consumption gap is narrowing.

Liberals and conservatives can't seem to get enough of this debate, which got a big shot in the arm when the conservative Heritage Foundation released a study by Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield last year: Among its findings:

  • 80% of poor families have air conditioning.
  • 92% have a microwave.
  • Almost two-thirds have cable or satellite TV.
  • More than half of poor households with children have a video game system.
  • Half of poor households have a computer and 43% have Internet access.
  • A third have a plasma or LCD TV, and a quarter have a digital video recorder.

(Post continues below.)

It added:
Of course, poor Americans do not live in the lap of luxury. The poor clearly struggle to make ends meet, but they are generally struggling to pay for cable TV, air conditioning, and a car, as well as for food on the table. The average poor person is far from affluent, but his lifestyle is far from the images of stark deprivation purveyed equally by advocacy groups and the media.

To which Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy responded (sarcastically):

So fret not, poor folks. To join, or rejoin, the middle class, apparently all you have to do is drop Comcast or Fios and turn off the thermostat.

New census figures on the number of Americans living beneath the poverty line are due out this fall. In anticipation, The Associated Press interviewed experts in the field and came to this conclusion:

The official poverty rate will rise from 15.1% in 2010, climbing as high as 15.7%. Several predicted a more modest gain, but even a 0.1 percentage point increase would put poverty at the highest level since 1965.

The Census Bureau said 46.2 million Americans were poor in 2010, 14.5 million more than at the beginning of the century. The poverty line for a family of four was $22,113 in 2010.


All of this means that more people who weren't in poverty will find themselves there.

Information from other reports provides more detail about many Americans' reality:

  • "More than 17 million women lived in poverty in 2010, and nearly 44% of these women (7.5 million) lived in extreme poverty, with incomes less than half of the federal poverty level," said a report (.pdf file) by the National Women's Law Center. Also, "Over 16.4 million children lived in poverty in 2010, close to half of whom (44.9%) lived in extreme poverty."
  • 48% of Americans -- 146.4 million people -- were either in poverty or were low income, meaning they earned between 100% and 199% of the poverty level, USA Today reported late last year.

That's a lot of people, and we can pretty well guarantee that most have refrigerators and microwaves, and many have flat-screen TVs and pay for cable. And cellphones or even smartphones.


Do you agree with those who think the hardships of poverty have been exaggerated by the media? Rector told CNN: "If you took the typical poor household and put them on TV, no one would think they are poor. They struggle to make ends meet, but they are not in any type of deprivation."

Or does that thinking miss the point? Carol King wrote at the Ms. Blog at Ms. Magazine in response to The Heritage Foundation's report:

The fact that so many of them had those things before they slid into poverty doesn't seem to matter. This mean-spirited attitude implies that poor people who dare to have any modern conveniences are masking how well-off they really are. This is an attempt to deflect any discussion of the causes of the economic collapse and why there's a growing chasm between the haves and the have-nots.

"Tazlima" attempted to provide some perspective in a post called "So what ARE poor people allowed to have?" on What to Expect, a parenting blog:

I'm in a financially tight situation, so this hits close to home. I have a pretty nice car that's paid off. Could we save money on insurance if we sold it? Sure, but I've also considered that if things got REALLY bad, I could sleep in it, so it has extra value to me beyond getting me to work every day. Internet access is essential to applying for jobs in the modern world, so you have to have that in some form. If it costs more in gas to drive to the library every day to apply for jobs (and libraries usually have time limits on their usage), then it's worthwhile to pay for that access even when times are hard. And don't tell me you don't need the Internet. DH has gone into countless places looking for work, and what do they tell him? "Yeah, we have openings, you go to such-and-such website and apply online."

More on MSN Money:


To paraphase P.J. O'Rourke, It's hard to shed a tear for poverty that is wearing $100 Nikes.   In poor communities there is plenty of work to be done.  Welfare recipients should be required to perform some neighbor clean up to get their pay.  It would also give them a feeling of self-worthy and probably give them incentive to get a job.
Aug 3, 2012 11:52AM
Hard to feel sorry for those on medicaid and food stamps claiming poverty when they have a smart phone($100/mo+), cigarrettes, and a nicer car than me.  Yet I sacrifice buying generic foods, and clothes so they can have Nike's and name brand foods and a larger/fuller cart than I do.  I think the public assistence programs while necessary for some, have become a "right" to a lot of lazy people who don't want to work and a way of life that I'm sick and tired of supporting.
Aug 3, 2012 11:13AM
Somebody who has a nice flat screen tv, but can't afford to put food on the table...well that's part of the reason they are poor.  They have not learned to priortize and budget money.  They have not learned delayed gratification.  Whatever the reason, it's kinda hard to feel sorry for them.  Perhaps they should have built a small emergency fund instead of splurging on a luxury item.  Most of the time (not always) it's all about the choices we make in life. And figuring out what are "wants" and what are "needs".    
Aug 3, 2012 11:55AM

I like when the woman infront of me is paying for her groceries with food stamps while texting on her I phone. Then gets into her Cadillac. True story.

Aug 3, 2012 11:47AM

Bumper sticker: "The government is NOT your baby Daddy."


Aug 3, 2012 11:56AM

If you're poor and have a high dollar tv, cable, a blackberry, and high speed internet, I think I have a good idea why you're poor....

You've learned budgeting from watching your government.

Just a little hint. You can't spend more than you make indefinitely.

Aug 3, 2012 2:22PM

My family has lived the poverty life before. i would go to the store and we could not afford a 70 cent candy bar. I am a 21-year old now... but we did not have HDTVs or cable, and for internet access? We had those free AOL things you could pick up at the store that lasted you a couple of months. We went without. We also did not take government assistance. My parents did what they had to do and once my dad healed from a massive heart attack, he was back at work working his **** off, and my mom was as well. They made it work. I don't know why everyone feels so entitled to have such nice things even when they can't afford them. I work at a local Walgreens and some of the people come in with Gucci/Louis Vuitton/Vera Bradley, etc purses and wallets, an iPhone, designer sunglasses...but then...there is their EBT Card. I don't understand. And it gets me so mad when they come through my line and use that EBT card to buy like 5 cases of pop, and then some chips... and WAIT don't forget their cigarettes! Which they pay cash or credit for. I will have someone spend $20 on a couple packs of smokes and some pop... they will use EBT for the pop, then hand me a 20 for the smokes. Why didn't you just use that for the whole purchase?! I swear as long as I live I am NEVER taking government assistance. I am not entitled like most of America. I have a smartphone and nice clothes and stuff, but I WORK FOR IT!

Aug 3, 2012 11:55AM

As long as it is NOT being bought with money given to them from the government!  Problem one is paying attention to how the money gets spent.  We make it too comfortable to stay on welfare.



Aug 3, 2012 11:55AM
Scary isn't it. Too many lower income families spend more on toys that ensuring that their children are raised healthy!
Aug 3, 2012 12:36PM
When I have trouble making ends meet, I shut off the cable, turn the ac thermostat up, and quit buying anything except what it takes to survive. Also, when we were kids of the 60"s and 70's we didn't have AC in the house where I lived and we survived with fans in the windows. We baled hay in the summer no matter how hot it was and we fed livestock all winter long no matter how cold or how much snow was on the ground. We didn't have video games, we had sports outside all year long and we interacted witht he other family members for entertainment, but alas those days are gone. Too bad. Sometimes I think the Amish got it right.

I have to agree with the postings that state that many poor people make poor spending decisions and thats in part why they are where they are. I started out poor, with nothing, no job skills or the like and ended up putting myself through college and saving over $500,000 in my 401k over the years. I look at "the poor" who line up for food stamps and WIC, they have smart phones (I still don't), and many drive cars that are worth more than mine. It makes me wonder about all these programs and whether its a sham. We encourage low income people to have more kids which keeps them in poverty.... We are reminded about how they are below the "fedral poverty rate" when they receive all kinds of subsidies bringing their true "income" up to or well beyond use lower middle class wage earners who are actually going to work every day.


The US is creating a society of enabled people who depend of government for their "daily maintenance". Like Greece and Spain, we can't afford this and its wrong. I suspect t that at at least half the folks on WIC and Food Stamps could survive being booted from the program.... But the whiners will say that we're forcing them to live in their cars (oh how tough it must be to sleep in their Lexus...)

Aug 3, 2012 2:42PM
I look forward to the day that I can afford an I-phone like the woman in front of me at the grocery store has while she pays for her purchases w/ food stamps.
Aug 3, 2012 11:58AM
Oh and if you cant afford car insurance bit"ches dont be driving a car. Im tired of having to pay a deductible because you hit me and have no insurance. Take a bus.
Aug 3, 2012 2:53PM

My mom and her siblings were raised POOR.  They didn't even have indoor plumbing until she was in 8th grade. 

I agree with everyone who says that "poor" is relative, especially now.  I overheard a conversation the other day where the dad was screaming to someone on an iPhone about not having any money because he has to have $160 a month for DirectTV and another $150 for data plans on phones for the kids.  By the way, they were getting treatment for free with their medical card.  Over $300 a month for satellite and phones?!?!?  Makes my pity level for their "poverty" go WAY down.

Aug 3, 2012 2:54PM
hmmm...I'm not near what would be considered "poor' in this country, but I don't have a flat screen, cable, save the a/c for days that actually need it...then again, I have to pay for my groceries, healthcare, and utility bills, and my tax refunds are laughable compared to the amt those "poor" people receive. It's not a sign that our country/economy is improving; it's the sign of a broken system that is getting a little worse every yr. 
Aug 3, 2012 12:19PM
What bothers me is people purchasing HDTV's and yet there on food stamps or some other kind of welfare. On the other hand if its air conditioning then that shouldnt be compromised if it used wisely cause even a poor person should not have to suffer through a 100 degree heat wave. You can buy a used regular TV really CHEAP.... But to be on food stamps and get a new HDTV or a high end smart phone instead of  just a simple cheap cell phone THEN WE HAVE A PROBLEM!!!
Aug 3, 2012 12:06PM
I am not "in poverty" according to the income figures--my income is just a little above the poverty line.  However, I do have a flat screen TV.  Is that wrong?  Considering that TV is my only real souce of entertainment, (can't afford dining out, going to movies, etc.) I think it was money well spent. 
Aug 3, 2012 12:34PM

Many on welfare all live together in one house, but claim to the welfare office that they live alone. Combined their income well exceeds the poverty level, but alone their income is below poverty levels.  So they lie to the welfare office and no one is cross checking the addresses. Simply solution, validate addresses. Validate bogus addresses. If you take away their life lines they will work. They seem to think that the government should pay for their necessities and they get to spend their money on the Fun stuff. 

Aug 3, 2012 2:41PM
There are very few truly poor people in America,  Just visit another country and you will see true poverty.
Aug 3, 2012 12:18PM

Can you afford healthcare by not having a $99 microwave? a $150 a/c? a $19.95/mo. internet access/ a $29.95/mo cable/satellite TV? or a bundled $39.99/mo plan for both plus phone? a $199 LCD TV? All of these combined together would not buy a family healthcare for a few months, much less for a year. 

If they shop around, they can find these items for even less. And my pricing is for new. Did they purchase these used - the partisan Heritage report does not say? Plus, how many poor families have more than one or two of these luxuries - the partisan Heritage report does not say? Did these poor families have any of these before they went into poverty - the partisan Heritage report does not say? Walk a mile in their shoes before you wish for them to have even less of what the Heritage report says they might have between them.

Why is it that there is this outcry here for the poor have anything at all while the approval of the wealthy accumulating more and more is lauded as the meaning of life?

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