As Thanksgiving nears, some “perspective” on poverty

Before Thanksgiving dinner each year, my stepfather likes to say a prayer imploring all of us to “try to keep things in perspective.” Despite it being more than a bit stale at this point (sorry, dad), I can already hear him delivering this refrain yet again this year. So in that spirit, I think it is worthwhile—especially at a time of frustrating congressional inaction and worrisome missed opportunities—to take stock of what some government programs do achieve, while being mindful of all that still needs to be done.

As I have written previously, the Census Bureau’s new Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) is an attempt to better identify America’s poor, by accounting for many of the additional expenses that families face and the resources that government programs provide. As the figure below illustrates, the effect of many of these programs is significant.  While the percentage of people below the SPM poverty line is already a woeful 16 percent, it would increase to 18 percent without the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). That would be an additional 6 million people living in poverty. If you consider the EITC’s effect on those under 18, the benefit is even more striking: from 18.2 percent in poverty with the EITC to 22.4 percent without it. That’s roughly 3.1 million children kept above the poverty line.

The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp Program) shows a similar impact. The overall poverty rate would be 17.7 percent versus 16 percent without accounting for SNAP, a difference of about 5.2 million people. For children, the poverty rate goes from 21.2 percent without SNAP down to 18.2 percent – roughly 2.2 million children.

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These are nontrivial differences, to be sure.  Yet even with these programs, the picture of America described by the SPM is one of substantial unmet need: 49 million people living in poverty, including almost 14 million children. We are the richest nation in the world, yet one-sixth of our nation is considered poor, and almost half (47.9 percent) are within 200 percent of the poverty line – what some might call “near poor.” That strikes me as a potentially “perspective altering” statistic. Maybe my stepfather is on to something.