By the government's official poverty measure, the share of Americans considered poor has remained largely unchanged for 50 years. In 1967, 14 percent of the U.S. population lived in poverty. In 2011, it was 15 percent. That comparison – with only modest movement in between – looks like an indictment of the massive resources the country has spent fighting poverty, subsidizing housing and feeding children, giving the low-income tax breaks and help with their energy bills.
Hasn't any of it had a bigger effect?
The truth is that the official poverty rate itself is a deeply flawed measure, and one that does a terrible job of revealing the impact of programs specifically designed to aid the poor. In counting the number of Americans in poverty, it ignores most of the help we give them to get out of it, from the Earned Income Tax Credit, to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, to housing vouchers.
For example: If you're a working mom of two making $18,000 a year, just below the poverty line, the government doesn't consider in its own poverty rate whether the food stamps and rental subsidies it gives you effectively help pull your family above that threshold.
To address this, the Census Bureau began to roll out in 2011 a supplemental poverty measure, a revised tool that tries to take these non-cash benefits into account (alongside other essential family costs). The supplemental measure, though, is primarily a resource for the curious. It's not used in official poverty statistics or policy-making.
Researchers at Columbia University's Population Research Center, however, have used it to make a powerful point about the real impact of all these government programs. Christopher Wimer and colleagues took the new supplemental threshold and carried it back in time, adjusting the 2012 supplemental poverty line for inflation.
Here, they illustrate the difference between the official poverty rate over time, and what it would have looked like using this much more nuanced measure:
In this picture, poverty clearly declined with time (along the blue line), from 26 percent in 1967 to 16 percent in 2011. That would suggest we've nearly reduced poverty by half in five decades.
The researchers then took this same historic picture and removed all of the government benefits: the tax breaks like the EITC and the transfers like food stamps. Now it's possible to gauge what historic poverty trends would have looked like in a world where government offered none of these programs for the poor (the green line):
Take away those programs, and the poverty rate would have actually inched up from 1967 to 2011.
Children living in "deep poverty" (in families making less than 50 percent of the poverty line) have been some of the greatest beneficiaries:
We obviously can't go back in time and change how we thought about poverty prior to modern efforts to measure it in a new, more accurate way. But we could use this evidence to think today about the value of federal programs meant to help the poor. Particularly while we're debating whether or not to cut them.
Hat tip to the Washington Post.
Top image from a protest in Washington last week: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters