Televisions, DVD players and mobile phones have become so cheap that even poor third world families can own them. In Foreign Policy, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo write:
In rural Morocco, Oucha Mbarbk and his two neighbors told us they had worked about 70 days in agriculture and about 30 days in construction that year. Otherwise, they took care of their cattle and waited for jobs to materialize. All three men lived in small houses without water or sanitation. They struggled to find enough money to give their children a good education. But they each had a television, a parabolic antenna, a DVD player, and a cell phone.
In the Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell wrote: "Twenty million people are underfed but literally everyone in England has access to a radio." Rather than spending all their money on necessities, the English poor were alleviating the drabness and monotony of low income life by spending money on things that brought a little fun, style or excitement. So as Orwell observed: "in a decade of unparalleled depression, the consumption of all cheap luxuries has increased."
Banerjee and Duflo agree with Orwell. Village life is dreary and things like television make life more enjoyable. But the policy wonks at the Heritage Foundation are convinced that in the United States, televisions are incompatible with true poverty. In an attempt to rubbish the US Census Bureau’s definition of poverty they reveal:
The typical poor household, as defined by the government, has a car and air conditioning, two color televisions, cable or satellite TV, a DVD player, and a VCR. If there are children, especially boys, the family has a game system, such as an Xbox or PlayStation.
Not only that, but the statistics show that most poor households also have a refrigerator, oven and stove — not to mention a microwave oven. But as Melissa Boteach and Donna Cooper point out, "it takes much more than a few appliances to support a family." There’s also the cost of things like housing. And in the United States, that’s not cheap if you’re earning close to miniumum wage.
Considering how affordable they now are, the idea that refrigerators or ovens are luxuries seems a little silly. As Matt Yglesias writes:
Back in the late 1920s, a refrigerator would be worth a lot more than eight days’ worth of food. And a microwave wouldn’t exist at all. But in the modern day, these appliances don’t represent meaningful levels of accumulated wealth. What’s more, they’re not luxuries. They’re actually thrifty things to own. If a single mom raising three kids sold her fridge, she’s be making a very imprudent call from a strictly financial point of view. Buying food at the grocery store and saving it thanks to the miracles of modern refrigeration is sound household budgeting. Given the dynamics of a modern economy, it would be pretty irresponsible for a poor person not to own basic household appliances.
But according Heritage, the widespread adoption of household appliances by low income Americans shows that anti-poverty activists and the liberal media are running a shameless propaganda campaign.