New Poverty Numbers Call for a New Poverty Agenda

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November 15, 2012; Source: CBS Radio

The Census Bureau just released new numbers on poverty conditions in the U.S. and the conditions aren’t good. The 2011 Supplemental Poverty Measure puts the number of Americans living below the federal poverty level in 2011 at 49.7 million. To put that in context, that’s roughly equivalent to the entire population of South Africa or South Korea and substantially more than the populations of Spain or Poland. We have an entire nation’s worth of people within the U.S. living on incomes of less than $23,050 for a family of four. And one out of every four black people in the U.S. is living below the poverty level. Writing for the Washington Post, Dylan Matthews pronounced the supplemental poverty figures “grim.”

With programs such as the earned income tax credit, child tax credits, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) on the chopping block for budget cuts due to sequestration, the nation of America’s poor may be in danger of growing substantially. Matthews suggests that the programs that have the biggest effect on reducing poverty are Social Security followed by refundable tax credits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and child care tax credits, then food stamps, unemployment insurance, and housing subsidies.

In other words, without these programs, the numbers of poor people would be millions higher. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives has passed legislation that would end some of these tax credits and other programs that typically benefit poor people. According to Timothy Smeeding, a University of Wisconsin-Madison poverty economist, “We’re seeing a very slow recovery, with increases in poverty among workers due to more new jobs which are low-wage…As a whole, the safety net is holding many people up.”

Writing for the Center for American Progress, Melissa Boteach covered roughly the same information as CBS, the Associated Press, and the Washington Post but suggested that the potential congressional failure to act before the nation plunges off the fiscal cliff “would only exacerbate the number of families in poverty and make it harder for a family to transition into the middle class.” Earlier in her article, Boteach referred to these programs as “policies providing pathways into the middle class, which is America’s engine of economic growth.” In her conclusion, she explains that these policies “work in keeping families out of poverty and giving low-income families and their children the opportunity to enter the middle class and pursue the American Dream.”

We don’t mean to disparage Boteach’s otherwise fine work, but we are surprised that even anti-poverty advocates have to bring such middle class/American Dream language into their arguments, as though they have to lug the precepts of American exceptionalism wherever they go just like politicians. As Smeeding notes, the safety net programs Boteach describes are geared to prevent poor people from sinking even deeper into the distress of poverty. Though they often fall short, these programs are meant to prevent people from going hungry and homeless.

Boteach is right that the nation desperately needs safety net programs. But it needs anti-poverty programs involving public employment jobs, new housing construction, health care reform, and comprehensive community development to propel poor communities into conditions in which a middle class status is achievable. The nation desperately needs to protect safety net programs against the fiscal cliff, but it also needs to put resources and efforts into programs that provide more than a net. This is the anti-poverty agenda that we failed to hear from many candidates during the election campaign. It is the agenda that much of the nonprofit sector hopes the president will initiate following his second inauguration—once he protects the safety net from sequestration.—Rick Cohen

  • michael

    This should be a flat out warning to the nation that we have to start finding other ways to care for the poor. Relying upon a federal government which is $16 trillion in debt and rapidly going insolvent is not a strategy to care for our most vulernable. Politcally, there are a lot more powerful interests groups than the poor: seniors. public employee unions, etc who are going to vaccum up the bulk of the money….the rest will be crumbs from which we’ll have to shape a compasionate society.

    So whether it’s today’s fiscal cliff or tomorrow’s failed Treasury auction, change is coming.

  • Jennie Carpenter

    I appreciate Mr. Cohen’s perspective regarding a mainstream obsession with the “middle class” and belief in American (i.e. “United States”) exceptionalism. The assumption that safety net programs are the pathway to acheiving a middle class standard of living falls far short. And should that necessarily be the goal anyway?

    As Mr. Cohen suggests, we need public investment in the types of economic drivers that can propel poor households into the realm of a self-sufficient working class (which we used to have), who are then positioned to thrive as full participants in our economy, including striving to attain incomes at/above the median level, if they desire to do so.