A just released report by the Sutherland Institute introduces a metric—the Self-Reliance Index—that can be used to track people’s reliance on government and lack of self-sufficiency. You might call it the opposite of The Heritage Foundation’s Index of Dependence on Government.

The report notes, “Government aid only creates an illusion that aid recipients are well-enough off. Just as a student who hires someone to help them get ‘A’s’ is not truly an ‘A’ student, a person who depends on government to fulfill his or her needs is not out of poverty.” The Sutherland Institute recommends tracking how people obtain what they have. That is surely a more important statistic than tracking what they have borrowed, earned, or been given as if the method of obtaining what they own is irrelevant.

In any event, America’s poor are, perhaps, better off than their designation as poor would imply. Fifteen percent of Americans were officially classified as poor in 2009. Liberals assume that everybody agrees with them that those officially classified as poor live in material poverty and that reported income defines all of what resources one has available to them—the lowest income earners being the poorest members of society. But the 15 percent falling under federal poverty limits are surely not as poor as measuring only reported income suggests.

Many Americans spend more than what they make, with the taxpayers footing the bill. This perpetuates a culture of dependency and a lack of self-reliance for many. An urban family of four is classified as poor if it has income of less than $22,000, but the poorest fifth of American households spend twice as much as their reported incomes. A Heritage Foundation Report finds:

  • Forty-three percent of all “poor” households actually own their own homes. The average home owned by persons classified as poor by the Census Bureau is a three-bedroom house with one-and-a-half baths, a garage, and a porch or patio.
  • Eighty percent of “poor” households have air conditioning. By contrast, in 1970, only 36 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.
  • Only 6 percent of “poor” households are overcrowded; two-thirds have more than two rooms per person.
  • The typical “poor” American has more living space than the average individual living in Paris, London, Vienna, Athens, and other cities throughout Europe. (These comparisons are to the average citizens in foreign countries, not to those classified as poor.)
  • Nearly three-quarters of poor households own a car; 31 percent own two or more cars.
  • Ninety-seven percent of poor households have a color television; over half own two or more color televisions.
  • Seventy-eight percent have a VCR or DVD player; 62 percent have cable or satellite TV reception.
  • Eighty-nine percent own microwave ovens, more than half have a stereo, and a more than a third have an automatic dishwasher.

What is apparent from these facts is that simply earning less reported income than federal poverty limits allow does not make someone materially poor. In order to earn less reported income, however, someone may have to work less than they could.

Being paid to not work is harmful to the spirit. There is a certain dignity that comes with work. No one likes to feel like a freeloader. People should be encouraged to rely on government only as a last resort and only temporarily after exhausting family, extended family, and local community groups and organizations until they can get back on their feet. With dependency on government at an all time high in America, the Sutherland Institute’s Self-Reliance Index is being introduced at a crucial time. The Self-Reliance Index should change the way Americans look at the issue of poverty, because a self-reliant person isn’t poor, but one dependent on the government is.