The Baltimore riots have re-ignited the ideological wars over the efficacy of government spending to alleviate poverty, with Republicans who want to slash the budget seizing on images of urban chaos to argue that federal anti-poverty policy has been an abject failure at accomplishing its own goal. Paul Ryan suggests dumping more cash into the bottomless pit otherwise known as federal spending on the poor will only produce the “same failed result.”
But a new study being released today finds that the federal safety net may actually be doing more to alleviate poverty than previously thought. The study, from the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, uses a new statistical technique to measure the impact of federal programs on the poverty rate, correcting for what it says are defects in previous accounting methods.
The study’s top-line finding is that in 2012, federal safety net programs cut the poverty rate by more than half, reducing it from 29.1 percent to 13.8 percent and lifting 48 million people above the poverty line, including 12 million children. Previous accounting had put the reduction at less than half.
The study seeks to make an important addition to a debate that has long bedeviled researchers: How to measure the impact of government on poverty. Republicans like Ryan tend to use the official poverty rate to gauge it. But as Dylan Matthews details, this excludes the impact of non-direct-cash-transfer federal programs, such as Medicaid, food and rental assistance, and lower-income tax relief, making it a rather useless metric. As Matthews notes, if you use the census-based Supplemental Poverty Measure, which does factor in such programs, you find government has helped to lift substantial numbers out of poverty.
The CBPP study goes one step further than this, however. Its operating premise is that even Census data is imperfect: It is still marred by people under-reporting government assistance they receive. So the CBPP also factors in data from a recent Urban Institute micro-simulation program which adjusts census data to “more closely match actual participation” in government programs.
“Researchers on the left, right and center have complained that it’s very hard for household surveys to reflect all income — you end up missing big chunks of income from the safety net,” Arloc Sherman, the study’s lead author, tells me. “This new report fills that in.” However, he concedes this method might not be foolproof, either.
Here are the results from 2012, the most recent year for which this additional data is available:
— The federal safety net cut the poverty rate by more than half in 2012, reducing it from 29.1 percent to 13.8 percent. That includes 48 million Americans, 12 million of them children. Under the corrected data, the poverty rate is 2.2 percentage points lower than previously thought, and 4.6 points lower for children.
— The impact on those in “deep poverty,” i.e., below half the poverty line, was even more dramatic. That rate fell from 18.8 percent to 3.6 percent, with an almost-as-dramatic drop among children.
— The SNAP foodstamp program — a target of GOP budget cutters — lifted 10.3 million people out of poverty. It lifted 5.2 million people out of deep poverty.
— Tax relief such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit lifted more than 10 million out of poverty. The expansion of such programs is supported by some Republicans, though it’s unclear how many of them would pay for that beyond safety-net cuts elsewhere.
To be fair, because this is one year, it doesn’t really go to the question of whether the War on Poverty has worked over decades (though the CBPP thinks it has). It doesn’t go to other objections Republicans have to the safety net — that it traps people in dependency. But this study suggests once again that government engineered downward redistribution of resources — so decried by many Republicans — actually can succeed in lifting a whole lot of people out of poverty.
Morning Plum continues below:
* Hillary weathers media scrutiny? There’s a lot of chatter about the new New York Times poll showing that Hillary Clinton’s favorability ratings have jumped nine points, and the percentage of those who say she has strong leadership qualities has jumped by eight, since the email revelations first surfaced.
I’d be cautious about these numbers. First, this is only one poll. Second, yesterday’s NBC/WSJ poll finds her unfavorable numbers jumped by six. And third, it’s way early. There’s a long, long way to go!
* Broad support for citizenship: The new NYT/CBS poll also finds that 57 percent of Americans support allowing undocumented immigrants to stay and apply for citizenship, versus only 11 percent who say they should only be allowed legal status, and 29 percent who say they should be required to leave.
That last category is the actual position of many Republicans, but even if you factor in the fact that some of them do support legal status — though the GOP House won’t vote on it — the GOP spectrum of positions only have minority support in this poll.
* Hillary stakes out strong position on immigration reform: Late yesterday, Clinton surprised many observers by demanding a full path to citizenship, claiming Republicans who only support “legal status” actually support “second class status,” and standing by Obama’s executive actions shielding millions from deportation.
This is, at bottom, a gamble on the new Dem coalition, and it goes way beyond immigration, including issues like gay rights, climate change, and sentencing reform.
* Dems campaign against Obama’s trade deal: The Hill reports that Democratic candidates, such as Ohio Senate candidate Ted Strickland, are campaigning hard against Obama’s trade deal, using it to hit Republicans (who support it) as a threat to the middle class. This is another measure of how deeply this trade fight has divided Dems.
* Paul Ryan misleads on War on Poverty: Related to our lead item: Don’t miss Glenn Kessler’s deep dive into Paul Ryan’s claim that “after a 50-year war on poverty and trillions of dollars spent, we still have the same poverty rates — 45 million people in poverty.” As Kessler explains, Ryan is relying on the arguably misleading official poverty measure, which means “the impact of programs for the poor is not reflected in the official estimate.”
The Republican budgets, meanwhile, would slash away at a good deal of spending for the poor that this official estimate does not factor in. How convenient!
* Jeb Bush attacks War on Poverty: The moderate Jeb Bush weighs in on the Baltimore riots:
Trouble is, from the War on Poverty to the persistence of liberal big city mayors, the same government programs have been in place for over a half-century — and they have failed. We have spent trillions of dollars in the War on Poverty, and poverty not only persists, it is as intractable as ever. This represents a broken promise. And it feeds the anger of Baltimore.
As noted yesterday, there may be bipartisan agreement on the need for police and sentencing reform, but that’s the easy part: The ideological disagreements over government’s proper role in alleviating poverty are as intractable as ever.