Friday, November 4, 2011

What will the new poverty measures mean?

According to the New York Times, the poverty rate in America is about to fall—not because anybody's material circumstances have changed, but because the Census Bureau is adopting a "fuller" accounting of citizen well-being that looks beyond their cash income to also measure the government assistance they receive, as well as account for differences in costs-of-living for local areas. Here's the Times' chart giving an overview of the likely numerical changes:

I'm not sure how detailed the Census numbers will actually end up being: It would be nice if we could determine what percentage of the people who remain in poverty are employed, so that we have a sense of how many of these folks are "working poor"—that is, trying to provide for themselves, but unable to completely do so in the jobs they're able to obtain.

And as the Times notes: "Monday’s release are likely to offer fodder both to defenders of safety-net programs and fiscal conservatives who say the government already does much to temper hardship and needs to do no more." True. But more information will help—the debate should be based on detailed honest data, and not our worst ideological fears. (And that goes for both liberals and conservatives: If things are more hunky dory than we thought, we should focus our priorities and solutions accordingly.) On the surface, though, it looks like the liberals have something to crow about: The safety net really does save lots of people from poverty—which means our Great Recession hasn't been as devastatingly painful as it might otherwise have been.

That said, I'm not sure the Times frames the debate quite accurately: Conservatives aren't just arguing the government "needs to do no more"—many are arguing that government should do less, which seems to me like a recipe for disaster in this economy. Loosening the safety net probably won't grow the economy in any appreciable way, but it might devastate many lives. Republicans would help all of us if they focused less on contempt for the poor and a bit more on measures to give folks the way to earn their way up out of poverty—reducing the need for and strain on the safety net.

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