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We have been fighting a war against poverty for 50 years — ever since President Lyndon Johnson made that declaration in his first State of the Union speech in 1964. President Obama constantly reminds us of the plight of those Americans and blames it on income inequality.

How did the United States manage to become the greatest nation and economy in the world? People the world over have chased after the American dream and did their best to come to America. With a little hard work and ambition, America provided the opportunity for those dreams to become a reality. That was the America of the past — before government regulations put up roadblocks.

Knowing that 47 million Americans live in poverty today is very disconcerting. We think living in poverty means being unable to obtain the necessities of life such as adequate nutrition, shelter, clothing and basic material possessions.

The government defines poverty differently depending on the agency dealing with the issue. The Federal Poverty Guideline is issued each year by the Department of Health and Human Services and is used to determine who receives federal subsidies. It is adjusted for families of different sizes and geographic location. The second way to look at poverty is the Poverty Threshold, which is based strictly on a family’s annual cash income. The Census Bureau uses this to report the number of Americans that live in poverty each year.

One of the more interesting surveys that measures Americans’ actual living conditions is the Residential Energy Consumption Survey. This survey provides information on households at different income levels, including poor households. It measures a household’s energy consumption and ownership of various conveniences.

Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield, reporting for the Heritage Foundation, looked at the survey’s information and found that the typical poor household has a standard of living far higher than the general public thinks. The typical poor household has a car and air conditioning, two color television sets, cable or satellite TV, a DVD player, a VCR and if children are present a PlayStation or Xbox. The household also has a refrigerator, an oven and stove, a microwave, a washer and dryer, ceiling fans, and a cordless phone.

Rep. Paul Ryan, speaking at the Social Mobility Summit hosted by the Brookings Institution this month, told the audience that poverty is a form of isolation. He believes that the poor are isolated because they lack three crucial sources of support: education, family and work. The poor are less likely to have graduated from high school, less likely to have gotten married before they had children and are less likely to work full time.

Sadly, our government policies discourage work, thus making the American Dream off-limits to the poor. Take for example a Colorado mother of two with an income of $10,000. If her ability to work changes and she miraculously earns $40,000 a year, she will only be able to keep $6,000 or 20 percent of that income increase.

She will lose most to higher taxes and loss of benefits if she’s enrolled in programs like food stamps, Medicaid, CHIP, housing assistance, etc. Those programs are means-tested. Families become ineligible for them as they make more money. According to Eugene Steuerle, co-director of Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, her implicit marginal tax rate could be as high as 55 percent. (

The lesson learned is if you go to work, you will only be able to keep about 20 cents out of every dollar earned. “Why work and try to get ahead? The government will take care of me and increase my welfare benefits if I just vote the right way.” Playing by “government rules” keeps lower income people caught in a trap.

In Ryan’s words, “Federal assistance should not be a way station. It should be an on-ramp — a quick drive back into the hustle and bustle of life. We shouldn’t measure our success by how much we spend on welfare. We should measure it by how many people we help get off welfare.”

Working is the most direct and predictable way to re-enter society. Work creates the opportunity to learn new skills. Re-integrating the poor into the workplace means we all are sharing ideas and talents and that plays a role in personal and economic growth. It makes for better people and strengthens our communities.

Some Americans do live in destitution and need a helping hand, but these individuals are a minority within the overall poverty population. If the American Dream is to once again become accessible to the poor, they must not be penalized for working.

President Obama, we do not want to “spread the wealth” so everyone has social and income equality. We want government to foster a climate that encourages the opportunity for social and income mobility to thrive.

WILLEE COOPER is a former teacher and military spouse. A Hopkinsville resident, she is past president of the Kentucky Federation of Republican Women. Her column runs twice a month. Reach her at

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