Quantifying poverty is a harder problem than it ought to be, in that there are at least eight different Census Bureau poverty measurements, all yielding different answers. The imperfections behind the “15.1 percent in poverty” have led the conservative Heritage Foundation to make its perennial point that many families defined as poor have TVs, refrigerators, a microwave, air conditioning, a car, an answering machine, among other things.
What’s more difficult to understand is how this imperfection in the statistics supports the policy the GOP wishes to make to Federal anti-poverty programs. We do not need to know precisely how many “poor people” there are, to know the following:
- Deep poverty has reached its highest point on record. In 2010, the number and share of Americans who lived below half of the poverty line (below $11,157 for a family of four) reached its highest level on record. Some 20.5 million people (6.7 percent of the population) had incomes this low.
- Even the Heritage Foundation acknowledges that one of the chief “causes of child poverty in the United States” is “low levels of parental work,” an admission that supports the Democrats’ view that job creation must be priority one. And yet:
- The GOP refuses to allow the so-called “super committee” of six Democrats and six Republicans — who have been charged with recommending $1.5 trillion in budget cuts over the next 10 years — to take into account the effects of those cuts on employment.
- The GOP is going to extraordinary lengths to try to intimidate Ben Bernanke of the U.S. central bank into keeping monetary policy tight, despite historically low inflation and the most intractable unemployment problem we’ve had since the 1930s.
- The GOP has made clear that it will block all but $11 billion of President Obama’s $447 billion jobs proposal.
Government assistance—both ongoing programs like unemployment insurance, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and SNAP (formerly food stamps), and temporary increases in these and other programs enacted in the 2009 Recovery Act — kept millions of Americans above the poverty line. The Census figures show, for example, that unemployment benefits — including federal benefits scheduled to expire at the end of this year and state unemployment benefits that a number of states have recently chosen to pare back — kept 3.2 million people above the poverty line in 2010. In addition, while the official poverty measure does not count SNAP (food stamp) or EITC benefits as income, the Census Bureau reported that if they were counted, SNAP benefits would lift 3.9 million people out of poverty while the EITC would lift 5.4 million people out of poverty. (These benefits are counted under an alternative measure of poverty that many analysts favor and that the Census Bureau will issue later this year.)
Why then won’t the GOP join with Democrats to preserve these programs and fund them adequately? Why instead do they wish to cut them, in order to avoid raising even slightly the effective tax rates on the most financially fortunate?