There have been a lot of headlines about the US poverty rate lately, many aimed at stampeding us into pumping more money into blue social programs. But as the Wall Street Journal reports, recent Census Bureau statistics on poverty in the United States are misleading.
The rate released Tuesday by the Census Bureau showed some 15.1% of Americans were below the poverty line in 2010…But that only includes pretax income, and therefore it neglects a number of programs—such as food stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit and subsidized housing—that form the backbone of the nation’s antipoverty efforts…That means the lion’s share of government programs that have been implemented to help the poor are excluded from the measure.
The Census Bureau recognizes that the 15.1 percent estimate is high, and they do a separate calculation that factors in those government programs. “For 2009, when the official rate was 14.3%, the poverty rate falls to just over 10% when these various noncash programs are included.”Finding a reliable way to measure just how many Americans are stuck in poverty is a challenge but using the updated figure that includes “noncash” government programs is the best system we currently have. Look out for this statistic when the Census Bureau releases it for 2010 in the near future; it is a much more accurate measure of where we stand.Poverty in a country like ours is hard to define, much less hard to measure. 100 years ago most Americans did not have electricity or hot water in their homes. The only medical care many people could get was folk medicine and snake oil. Measured by the traditional human standard, absolute poverty has almost disappeared in the United States, and the definition of what is relative poverty has changed beyond recognition. When discussing relative poverty as opposed to absolute poverty, it is likely that the bottom ten percent of the population will always be considered poor compared to everyone else.There are people in this country in real need; in my neighborhood in Queens the soup kitchens and food pantries have no shortage of clients. Much of the poverty in our country is a poverty of relationships and services: children growing up in a world with no fathers, attending bad schools, lacking role models and mentors and surrounded by predatory gangs and drug traffickers are desperately poor in ways that income and consumption statistics don’t capture.By every economic measure, there is much less absolute poverty in the United States today than there was fifty or even thirty years ago — even in the middle of the deepest economic slowdown since World War Two. But the poor are still with us, they still need our help, and in more and more cases, the help that they need goes far beyond what government can ever provide.