Two views about what government needs to do about poverty

By Amy Goldstein
Thursday, September 16, 2010; 10:20 PM

Census Bureau figures released Thursday show that Americans' economic well-being deteriorated last year in important ways. The number of people living in poverty rose by 3 million in 2009 to 44 million, the highest level in the half-century that the government has kept track. For the first time, the number of people without health insurance exceeded 50 million.

Here are two voices well-versed in such issues, one from the right of the ideological spectrum and the other from the left. Both talked to The Post on Thursday about what this new snapshot of the United States means and what the government ought to do about it.

Robert Rector is senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. Robert Greenstein is executive director of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

How significant were the changes last year in Americans' economic well-being?

Rector: The numbers in 2009 are the largest increase in poverty in recorded history, with 3.7 million people falling into poverty. Even as a proportion of the population, it ties the previous records. This is a significant increase in poverty.

Greenstein: These figures are significant. They show a large increase in poverty in 2009. But, actually, for an economy with an unemployment rate in the 9 to 10 percent range, it's noteworthy that the increase in poverty and deterioration of income of people at the bottom wasn't even greater.

To what extent does this deterioration reflect recent and permanent changes in the U.S. economy?

Rector: I think this is due to a surge in unemployment that hopefully is temporary. However, you have a sort of core underlying poverty of 35 million people that is there even in economic boom times. . . . If you look at that core poverty . . . it stems from three basic causes: failure to complete high school, having a child without being married and the failure to maintain an attachment to the labor force. These are the big drivers of poverty.

Basically, in our society, we have debate between the left and the right, where the right is saying poverty is driven by specific human behaviors, specifically with respect to work and marriage, and the left says, no, this is based on some kind of abstraction that makes those behavior occur.

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