Feature

A misleading gauge of poverty

The census statistics are highly misleading because they don't measure the benefits from anti-poverty programs.

Sheldon H. DanzigerThe New York Times

Poverty in the U.S. isn’t worse than it was 40 years ago, said Sheldon H. Danziger, even if government statistics might lead you to think so. The Census Bureau released new data this week indicating “that the poverty rate in America held stable between 2011 and 2012, at about 15 percent.” That suggests that a far higher proportion of people live in poverty today than in 1973, when the official rate reached a record low of 11.1 percent. Not surprisingly, Republicans have seized on today’s higher number, citing it as proof that the federal government has wasted billions of dollars “fighting a war on poverty that has been largely lost.” But the census statistics are highly misleading; they measure only cash income, excluding the considerable benefits from many programs that help the poor, such as food stamps and the earned-income tax credit. “If they were counted, the rate would be closer to 11 percent.” It’s time we adopted a new poverty measure—one “that incorporated all anti-poverty policies” and demonstrated the painful cost of cutting these programs. The “critics of the safety net” have it all wrong: It’s not that anti-poverty programs have done no good, but rather that without them “poverty would be much higher.”

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