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Numbers game

Economy | What census figures on poverty say-and don't say

Issue: "Education: Sick schools," Sept. 18, 2004

Census Bureau reports usually don't get much publicity, but one released at the end of August did. During this hotly contested presidential race, the bureau's report that 1.3 million Americans joined the ranks of the poor between 2002 and 2003 gave Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards an opportunity: "George Bush and Dick Cheney like to say they should be returned to office to continue the good they're doing for the country. Well, I don't know how much more of this good the country can take."

That Census Bureau report, though, is a snapshot taken at the end of a recession in 2003-and given two years of economic slowdown plus terrorist attacks up to then, the trumpeted statistic of 12.5 percent of Americans living in poverty could easily be much worse. Heritage Foundation analyst Kirk Johnson notes that the poverty rate was lower last year than it was in 18 of 20 years during the 1980s and 1990s. This recession's increase in poverty was only half that occurring during each of the previous two recessions.

Furthermore, the figures show that welfare reform has worked. Previous recessions led to a big jump in the child poverty rate-and particularly poverty among black children, which was 42 percent in the booming mid-1990s and then dropped sharply following welfare reform. Two years of recession drove it back up, but only to 33.6 percent in 2003. That tragic figure has probably decreased once again with the U.S. economy's rebound over the past year, but we won't know until next year's Census report.

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The definition of the "poverty line" itself has long been in dispute. Now, the Census Bureau considers as impoverished a single mother with two children who earns less than $14,824. For a two-parent, three-child family, the poverty line stands at an annual income of $21,959. Maybe the poverty line should be higher, since many people who earn more than that are struggling. Healthcare remains a big problem: As Barbara Elliott of the Houston-based Center for Renewal puts it, "We're finding that people's take-home pay after they pay for their health costs is putting them at the poverty level even though they seem to have a pretty stable position in life."

On the other hand, since the Census study counts dollar income only and excludes government benefits such as food stamps, public housing, Medicare, and Medicaid, as well as in-kind or financial help from private or faith-based groups, maybe the poverty line should be lower. Some among the elderly who have low incomes own their own homes with paid-off mortgages and have other assets. Students and others who are temporarily poor but have bright prospects are also lumped in with the destitute.

Given the biblical imperative to show compassion for the poor, it's vital to learn how many Americans truly are impoverished. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2 percent of Americans say they "often" do not have enough food to eat. But overall, most Americans defined as living in poverty today have material situations that would have been seen as comfortable two generations ago. More than two-thirds of poor households have more than two rooms per person. Over 70 percent of poor households own a car, 76 percent have air conditioning, 97 percent have a color television, 78 percent have a VCR or DVD player, and so on.

The Census Bureau study did not provide a look at the two biggest contributors to poverty: the failure of government-provided education and the absence of fathers in many homes. Nearly two-thirds of poor children live in single-parent homes, and 1.3 million children are born out of wedlock each year. Most of them are born into long-term poverty. Improved family life and improved schooling would take a huge bite out of poverty, as a war on crime already has in some areas.

Christians at the front lines of inner-city poverty fighting also point out the frequency of spiritual problems, including a sense of hopelessness, worthlessness, and despair. Able-bodied people who break free from those conditions generally break out of poverty as well. But Census figures tell us little about those difficulties.

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