Anyone who remembers the effort to reclassify ketchup as a vegetable, Barbara Bush telling Katrina survivors that they were better off in the Superdome or Wall Street executives crying poverty at $500,000 salaries, won't be surprised to learn the latest "Let Them Eat Cake" moment. The Heritage Foundation, a D.C.-based think tank, released a report last week that declared poverty in the United States largely a myth. This is so, said the study's authors, because a high percentage of Americans who live in poverty own things like refrigerators, televisions, DVD players, stoves and cell phones. The reality is that the number of people living in poverty in the United States is at the highest levels ever, even if this crisis doesn't yet conform to our image of global poverty. In America, complete and utter devastation has never been accepted as the trigger for action on big and solvable problems. Nowhere is the poverty crisis more profound than among kids: one in five lives in poverty and it's one in four in rural America. At four years of age, these kids are already 18 months behind their peers educationally, depriving our nation of hundreds of billions of dollars in lost economic growth. And a third of all kids are overweight or obese, costing our nation billions annually in health care expenses. The Heritage study itself is remarkably misleading. Particularly in rural areas, families need refrigerators for basic survival, cars are often the only way to show up to even the lowest-paying jobs and televisions are the lifeline to the outside world and the first line of defense when tornadoes or floods strike. The study also points to increased children's weight as evidence of a poverty myth. To the contrary, children living in poverty are disproportionately the victims of an obesity crisis caused by a dearth of affordable healthy foods and a deluge of cheap and disease-causing junk food. A study on the solutions to poverty -- including ones grounded in free-market principles -- would be a more productive endeavor than a study that paints a deceptive and stigmatizing picture of struggling families. Ultimately, the true picture of poverty can't be revealed in reports and white papers. That's why, today, I invited Edwin Feulner, the President of the Heritage Foundation to join me in visiting rural America to meet with parents who are struggling and trying to make good choices for their families. He can also learn about Save the Children's public-private partnership programs that are helping kids get the best tools they need -- education as well as nutrition and fitness instruction -- to exit the cycle of poverty that has gripped America for generations. Below is the text of my letter. I sincerely hope Mr. Feulner accepts this offer. ---- Edwin Feulner President The Heritage Foundation 214 Massachusetts Avenue, NE Washington, DC 20002 Dear Mr. Feulner, The number of people living in poverty in the United States today is at an all-time high. One in five kids is affected by this crisis, robbing them and our nation of a brighter future. Unfortunately, the reality of poverty is an abstract "other" to many Americans. Indeed, your recent study, "Air Conditioning, Cable TV, and an Xbox: What is Poverty in the United States Today?" was an unfortunate distraction in the fight to end poverty in the United States. Living in poverty doesn't mean not having anything; it means not having the things that matter.
- Owning a $60 refrigerator doesn't mean a family can afford healthy foods that can prevent kids from becoming obese.
- Owning a $20 DVD player is no substitute for owning books or visits to museums or concerts.
- A $30 cell phone can connect families to their communities; they can't connect children to a rich and comprehensive education.
- A stove isn't just needed to cook soup; for some families, it's the source of heat in the home.
Over the past half century, leaders like Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Congressman Jack Kemp and Senators Chris Dodd and Ted Kennedy took on the poverty crisis with passion and energy. And, of course, First Lady Michelle Obama has shown extraordinary leadership in the fight against childhood obesity.
These people didn't always believe in the same paths toward ending poverty in America, but they did accept the same realities and shared the same goals.
I hope you will consider joining me on a tour of rural Kentucky, West Virginia, California, New Mexico or the other ten states where Save the Children runs programs that are helping tens of thousands of the most vulnerable kids get a solid education -- the path out of poverty in America.
You will not only see the true face of poverty in America, you will also see the solution at work.