For me, the biggest takeaway from the new Census data on poverty has little to do with the data itself—it’s this: we’ve long known what to do to take the next steps in the fight against poverty, and we still know what to do to take the next steps in the fight against poverty. But we’re not doing it.
If you look all the way back to the 2007 inaugural report of the Half in Ten campaign—written by Peter Edelman, Angela Glover Blackwell and other antipoverty heavyweights—it was clear then that raising the minimum wage, strengthening the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, and improving childcare assistance could reduce poverty by 26 percent. Add lessons that we have since learned from initiatives like the bipartisan (at least when it comes to state governors) subsidized jobs program, and a more responsive food stamp (SNAP) program, and we know that we could make significant strides to reduce poverty were there the political will—or more accurately, a movement to create the political will.
In lieu of that, for the eleventh time in twelve years, poverty has worsened or stayed the same. It remains stuck at 15 percent, with 46 million people living on less than about $18,300 for a family of three. That includes nearly 22 percent of all children, 27 percent of African-Americans, 25 percent of Hispanics and more than 28 percent of people with disabilities (the next group conservatives will likely target after they are through with those who currently need food stamp assistance).
Significantly, 44 percent of those in poverty live below half the poverty line—in “deep poverty”—on less than about $9,150 for a family of three. That adds up to 20.4 million people, and includes 15 million women and children—nearly 10 percent of all children in the United States. Deep poverty and its accompanying toxic stress are particularly harmful to children. We also have evidence that just a modest boost in income—$3000 in earnings or government benefits for a family living on less than $25,000—makes a significant difference in the lives of young children when they reach adulthood, both in the hours they will work and the income they will earn.
Another number that remained stagnant last year is the number of people living below twice the poverty line—on less than $36,600 for a family of three. That describes 106 million Americans, more than one in three of us. These are people who are living a single hardship—such as a lost job or serious family illness—away from poverty.
While conservatives will use the 15 percent poverty rate as fodder to label as a failure the War on Poverty launched nearly fifty years ago—since the official poverty rate is about the same now as it was in the late-1960s—we know that one has to overlook critical information to reach this conclusion.
Some examples: the poverty rate would be twice as high now—nearly 30 percent—without the safety net. Food stamp benefits aren’t included in the official poverty rate, but they lifted a record 4 million people above the poverty line in 2012; nor are the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit (CTC), which in 2011 moved 9.4 million people above the poverty line. In fact, in 2011 the official poverty rate would have dropped from 15.0 percent to 10.9 percent if it included food stamps, EITC and CTC. (See, too, Martha Bailey and Sheldon Danziger’s new book, Legacies of the War on Poverty.)
“If you took the official poverty measure and accounted for the effect of the biggest benefits that it leaves out—SNAP, rent subsidies, and tax credits for working families—you’d find that poverty in the United States is significantly lower today than it was at any time in the 1960s,” said Arloc Sherman, senior researcher at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “That’s true even despite today’s shaky economy.”
There were some obvious missed opportunities to reduce the poverty rate last year. In 2012, unemployment insurance (UI) benefits reduced poverty by 1.7 million people, compared to 2.3 million people in 2011 and 3.2 million people in 2010. According to the CBPP, the weakened antipoverty effect is in part due to reduced federal and state UI benefits and long-term unemployed workers exhausting their eligibility.
“The number of unemployed workers receiving no unemployment benefits is actually higher today than at any point in the recession,” writes Robert Greenstein, president of the CBPP. He notes that if UI benefits had been as effective as they were at reducing poverty among the jobless and their families in 2010, the poverty rate would have fallen over the past two years.
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But more than just missing opportunities for effective policy, we now face a Congress poised to make matters worse for those who are faring the worst in our economy.
As Greenstein notes, federal UI benefits for the long-term unemployed are scheduled to expire in the end of 2013 and may well not be renewed. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the sequester will cost 900,000 jobs by the third quarter of 2014. As for food stamps—which average $1.50 per person, per meal—there will be cuts to benefits in November that will affect 22 million children. House Republicans voted last night for an additional $40 billion in SNAP cuts that truly boggle the mind—both from a moral and economic perspective. Senate Democrats also agreed to $4 billion in cuts that would harm 500,000 families who are currently struggling to meet their basic food needs.
“No program does more than SNAP to protect children from the effects of deep poverty, and yet the House just voted to cut 3.8 million people off the program, including many of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the country,” Sherman wrote me in an email. “Some of those cut will be children, others will be poor childless adults who are out of work. The bill specifically targets those living in areas with the highest unemployment, where it’s hardest to find work.”
Edelman, who has about as much perspective on the public policy fight against poverty as anyone—having lived and worked on it through much of its history since serving as a legislative assistant for Senator Robert Kennedy—is struck by the nature of the newest attacks against antipoverty policies.
“In the past year the kinds of distortions and misstatements that characterize the arguments against the public policy that we have are even more troubling than they were before,” said Edelman, author of So Rich, So Poor: Why it’s So Hard to End Poverty in America. “Because now for example, there is a significant number of people who want to characterize food stamps as being something that keeps people from looking for jobs—a totally made up thing. It’s such a gross distortion.”
If there is any hope to be gleaned from the latest economic snapshots of what Americans are experiencing when it comes to income and poverty, it lies in the notion that perhaps more people are beginning to see that the needs of low-income people and a dwindling middle class are converging. When the top 1 percent see an income gain of 20 percent, and everyone else has a gain of just 1 percent—something has to give.
“We’re not seeing much growth in jobs, we’re not seeing much growth in wages for anybody, so it shouldn’t be surprising that people’s incomes are going nowhere,” said Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute.
Edelman points to the living wage campaigns at Walmart stores and fast food restaurants as positive signs. He also calls for “campaigns of public information” to influence public opinion about people in poverty and near poverty.
“Absent a serious change in our politics, which depends on really hard work organizing and reaching people to change attitudes—we’re not going to get the policies we need and we’ll be stuck in this mess for quite a while to come,” he said.