Well, isn't it wonderful? We have another Reagan administration "triumph," as Patrick Buchanan characterized it. The number of poor people dropped to only 33.7 million in 1984, only 14.4 percent of Americans. I suppose it will be a triumph when the budget deficit drops below $200 billion and the trade deficit sees $125 billion again.
Not that this kind of hypocritical puffery is anything new or that it is engaged in only by Republican administrations. When the crime rate dips a bit from historic highs, politicians of all stripes rush to pronounce victory when even taking credit for marginal change would be undeserved. When casualties dropped slightly in any given week in Vietnam, a sighting of the light at the end of the tunnel was proclaimed yet again by those in power.
Aside from the obvious fact that one in seven Americans being poor is hardly a triumph, the modesty of the "victory" is underscored by the realization that the progress of 1984 takes us back to a situation that is slightly better than 1982 and worse than 1981, and, except for 1982 and 1983, worse than any year since 1966.
Pat Buchanan did not point out that the administration made much rosier predictions a few months ago, hardly a first for this administration in that regard. Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige had predicted a 1984 poverty rate of 13 percent, or 3.3 million fewer people in poverty than there finally were.
The relatively small decrease is especially distressing given the large drop in unemployment from 1983 to 1984. More than that, unemployment now seems to have "bottomed" out at 7.3 percent, continuing the very disturbing pattern of the last 15 years in which the lowest unemployment rate reached at each successive economic peak is higher than the one previous. This suggests that 14.4 percent is about as well as we are going to do unless we have some different policies.
The headlines mask very bad distributional numbers. Pretax income for the lowest 40 percent of families, a figure that includes a good part of the middle class, is $470 lower in real value than it was in 1980. The top 40 percent gained $1,800 and the top 10 percent gained $5,000 by contrast. The after-tax disparity is even more startling.
The 15.7 percent of the total national income that is received by the lowest 40 percent of families is the lowest percentage share for that large group since the Census Bureau began keeping such records in 1947.
The situation for minorities is even more bleak. The poverty rate for black children under age 6 went up in 1984, to 51.1 percent, the highest since this information started being kept in 1970. For Hispanic children under age 18, the 1984 poverty rate was 39 percent, the second-highest rate ever recorded in that catagory.
Yet I suppose we should be grateful to this administration in some ways. As it was victimizing millions of poor people over the past five years, it did teach us all some valuable lessons. It has conducted a number of live social experiments that have yielded concrete data, albeit at a very high price.
First, we are now sure that the nation's general economic health really is one key determinant of the level of poverty, since that was the only thing that made things any better for the poor in 1984. It is too bad the Reagan people think it is the only relevant factor, but maybe any remaining federal program junkies and no-growth fanatics now see there is a bigger picture.
Second, we now know for sure that if we change the tax code to create billions in new giveaways to the rich we will make them richer, and if we cut programs that help the poor and let taxes hit the working poor harder, they will get poorer (although, since poverty is measured before taxes and income assistance are factored in, none of these impacts is counted in the poverty statistics).
Third, we have learned -- the hard way, unfortunately -- that federal programs are not the totality of an antipoverty strategy. Not only is the general economic health relevant, but state and local government, businesses, churches, trade unions and ordinary individual citizens have a responsibility and can make a difference too. In fact, poor people themselves have a responsibility -- another fact that should be obvious but maybe wasn't to some.
All of this has been made much clearer by the events and the experiments with live subjects over the past five years.
It is necessary, of course, to make clear that Pat Buchanan is engaging in Orwellian rhetoric with regard to the latest news, but, I must say, I think most people knew that without being told. What is more of a challenge is to find political leaders who will make a real effort to do more about the one in seven Americans who were poor in 1984.
The totality of a strategy is more complex than most people admit. That is probably one reason why more people do not speak out. For one thing, part of the answer costs money, and we already have an intolerable deficit. Another part means closing the tax loopholes that benefit the big corporations and the rich, although at the moment most of the dividend from that would have to go to reducing the deficit.
Nonetheless, there are steps we should take even now, in fairness:
*Immediate action to reduce the tax burden on poor workers, which has crept up so significantly.
*Incremental spending increases in programs that definitely work, such as Head Start, prenatal and child health care, and compensatory education.
*Affordable spending increases in basic support programs, especially nutrition programs, to respond at least in some measure to the undeniable findings about increased hunger around the nation.
*An increased investment in helping disproportionately unemployed young people find their way into the labor market and in assisting dislocated adult workers to make a successful transition to new jobs.
This is truly a modest agenda. It does not even begin to address in any direct way the increasing problem of housing for low-income people or the massive concentrations of poverty in inner cities, which are getting steadily worse with virtually no problem recognition.
Anyway, my hat is off to Pat Buchanan. He really has a way with words.