It’s finally occurred to the liberal mindset that hardly anyone in America is poor anymore. Poverty existed during the Great Depression, when many people had to stand in breadlines in order to eat, and kids collected empty soda-pop bottles so that Mom and Dad could pay the light bill. That was poor. Nowadays, Americans at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder not only aren’t starving but are helped along with a variety of valuable benefits such as the negative income tax, food stamps, and free medical care.

So–duh!–New Yorker “economics” writer John Cassidy finally gets it:

“Every three years, researchers from the federal government conduct surveys about the number of appliances in the homes of American families. In 2001, ninety-one per cent of poor families owned color televisions; seventy-four per cent owned microwave ovens; fifty-five per cent owned VCRs; and forty-seven per cent owned dishwashers. Are these families poverty-stricken?”

The answer, of course, is no–when you compare the way the so-called poor in America live to the genuinely starving in, say, Kerala, India. But, then, what would happen to the poverty industry, constantly seeking to expand its domain of government-funded programs? Quick, think, someone! So Cassidy has come up with a new justification for maintaining, and even increasing the handouts: “relative poverty.” That means that you may not be poor, but you sure feel poor compared to everyone else. He writes:

“Although many poor families own appliances once associated with rich households, such as color televisions and dishwashers, they live in a society in which many families also possess DVD players, cell phones, desktop computers, broadband Internet connections, powerful game consoles, S.U.V.s, health-club memberships, and vacation homes. Without access to these goods, children from poor families may lack skills-such as how to surf the Web for help-wanted ads-that could enhance their prospects in the job market. In other words, relative deprivation may limit a person’s capacity for social achievement.”

Yes, owning a vacation home will help you get a better job. And I love the bit about “DVD players.” Earth to John Cassidy: It’s 2006, not 2001. The DVD player is the new VCR. Have you priced a DVD player lately? They cost about 100 bucks at Radio Shack, and I’m sure you can find them for even less if you shop around.

Let’s move on to cell phones. John, you need to get out of your Manhattan loft more often and come down to my housing project-loaded neighborbood in Washington, D.C. There’s not a “poor” kid on the street without his or her very own cell phone–plus, in many cases, a BlackBerry and a very sophisticated set of earphones for his or her portable CD-player.

And finally, the desktop computer. I won’t even get into the likelihood one of these would be quite affordable if the kids didn’t spend all their money on designer sneakers and the latest from North Face. I’ll simply note that if you’d like to “surf the Web for help-wanted ads” in my neighborhood, you could always try the free computers in our empty, empty, empty neighborhood public library (who reads around here?).

Next, since as even Cassidy admits, there’s not a lot of real poverty in America, Cassidy proposes that we change the definition to mean relative poverty:

“Since relative deprivation confers many of the disadvantages of absolute deprivation, it should be reflected in the poverty statistics. A simple way to do this would be to classify a household as impoverished if its pre-tax income was, say, less than half the median income-the income of the household at the center of the income-distribution curve. In 2004, the median pre-tax household income was $44,684; a poverty line based on relative deprivation would have been $22,342.”

That way–gosh, we’d never have to worry about a lack of candidates for poverty programs. And doesn’t your heart warm to the thought of subsidizing even more people? Retired folks who own their own homes? Recent college grads? Mmmmm, I can’t wait.

Of course, Cassidy’s real goal, like that of most liberals, isn’t so much more government programs as income redistribution: taking from you and me and giving to the “relatively poor.” Here’s the money graph (or, rather, the “your money” graph):

“Therefore, the way to reduce relative poverty is to reduce income inequality-perhaps by increasing the minimum wage and raising taxes on the rich.”

That’ll do it. Decrease the number of job opportunities for the poor to raise themselves out of poverty and hit–one more time–the “rich,” a category that invariably includes–dare I say it?–the “relatively rich.” Sorry, John, but your utopian dream is bound to make me feel “relatively poor”–and we can’t have that, can we?