THE SAD news is that there were no surprises in the poverty and income statistics just published for last year. Seven years deep in a period of economic expansion that is the pride of Republican policy, the poverty rate was essentially unchanged from the year before at 12.8 percent or one American in eight.
That's as good as it's likely to get in this business cycle; for the poor, the economy had already run out of gas. If recession occurs, as many expect, the rate will now turn up again. Nor does the figure for the whole society fairly capture the circumstances of the parts. The poverty rate for children remained about 20 percent, for blacks about 30 percent, for black children more than 40 percent. Income inequality was also up. The income share of the richest fifth of the population was the highest ever recorded, while for the middle three-fifths it was the lowest and for the poorest fifth the lowest since 1954.
The usual instant debate occurred as to how much to make of the figures, what they do and don't include. They don't include the value of non-cash benefit programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and most housing subsidies; conservatives rightly observe that if they did, the poverty rate would be lower. They don't include the value of capital gains, either, and liberals retort that if they did the seeming income share of the rich would rise.
The basic pattern remains. The blessings of recent years have been unevenly distributed; large and vulnerable chunks of the society are being left behind. Government is hardly the only cause or cure for this. But the government can lean against inequality in collecting taxes and paying benefits. It does less such leaning now -- lifts a smaller percentage of people who would otherwise be poor out of poverty -- than it did 10 years ago. That's what part of the current budget fight is about. The figures are disturbing enough as is. Whatever the role of government should be, it surely ought not be to make them worse.