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Mark Hanlon

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Heritage Foundation Study Encourages Americans to Understand National and International Poverty

Posted: 07/26/11 04:48 PM ET

The national news is buzzing about a study released by the Heritage Foundation about modern poverty in the United States. Political pundits are using this study to fuel the fire in the debate about the debt-ceiling crisis and the issue of entitlements.

According to the study, among Americans defined as poor by the U.S. government, "The overwhelming majority of the poor have air conditioning, cable TV, and a host of other modern amenities. They are well housed, have an adequate and reasonably steady supply of food, and have met their other basic needs, including medical care."

In reading the report, it is important not to minimize the real financial distress experienced by so many Americans, particularly in these difficult economic times. But the underlying truth of the Heritage report is that Americans in general don't really understand poverty.

Compassion International has created a website to bring about a better understanding of poverty in America -- and then place that knowledge into a global perspective. Because if we only look at poverty in our own country, we'll never quite understand how the poorest of the poor really live.

WhoAreTheJoneses.org allows users to anonymously input their annual salary into a custom, wealth/poverty calculator to see where they fit financially with the rest of the world. The results are enlightening, if not staggering. Take for instance the current U.S. poverty threshold of $21,954 USD for a family of four as cited in the Heritage Foundation study. Compared to the rest of the world, this family considered poor in the U.S. lives in the top 20th percentile for wealth globally, according to figures provided by the United Nations.

But since we at Compassion understand that poverty is about much more than money, the perspective offered through the Who Are the Joneses site doesn't stop there. The site encourages visitors to meet their global neighbors in Haiti, Ecuador, India and Uganda. These neighbors live in what are referred to as "primitive shelter," unable to protect themselves from disease-carrying mosquitoes and streams of rain that pass through a dirt floor.

Food is obviously in short supply for those living in extreme poverty, with most living on just one meal a day.

Further examination of our poorest neighbors' lifestyles exposes a water supply that is not clean and certainly not easy to obtain. Walking miles to wells to get a day's supply of water that may be contaminated and disease-ridden is part of the daily chores for millions living in extreme poverty around the world.

While many will use the Heritage data to advance their own political agenda, to do so would be a monumental mistake. As we think through what it means to be poor in the U.S., let us not forget to consider what it means to be poor around the globe.

But don't take my word for it, find out for yourself. Know your neighbors on four continents. See how you compare to them -- not the Joneses across the street.