For all of his bombast and bluster, moments of clarity and insight sometimes befall Donald Trump. One hit Thursday night in the first Republican debate of the 2016 presidential campaign. “If it weren’t for me,” Trump boomed, “you wouldn’t even be talking about illegal immigration.”
This might be true. It’s also true that few were talking about it perhaps because the number of undocumented workers living in the United States has recently leveled off at around 11.2 million — and taken a nose-dive in terms of Mexican immigration. One million fewer Mexicans transplants lived in the country illegally in 2012 than in 2007, according to the Pew Research Center.
But that didn’t stop the candidates from mentioning “immigration” and “illegal” about 40 times.
Meanwhile, an entire demographic that encompasses tens of millions of people barely warranted a mention: the poor. The word “poverty” got three mentions, and “poor” snared four more. Few real answers relating to poverty emerged in the course of the debate — and one of them carried wildly inaccurate information.
“The new normal of 2 percent [annual economic growth] that the left is saying you can’t do anything about is so dangerous for our country,” former Florida governor Jeb Bush said. “There’s 6 million people living in poverty today, more than when Barack Obama got elected.”
It’s unclear what Bush intended to say, but his statement was innacurate. There are roughly 6 million more people living in poverty today than there were in 2008. The total number of poor Americans is about 45 million— nearly 15 percent of the country’s population, according to U.S. Census Bureau. Roughly the same number of people applied for food stamps last year. Other estimates, in fact, place the number of impoverished Americans much higher, at more than 70 million.
Critics of the poverty rate point out that some measurements when calculating the poverty rate seem outdated. The federal poverty income for single-person households, for example, hovers at just $11,490. And families of four that make more than $23,550 are no longer considered in poverty.
Then there’s the whole block of people — millions more — who live on the precipice of poverty. Roughly 44 percent of all Americans live paycheck to paycheck, the Corporation for Enterprise Development found last year; a demographic it referred to as “liquid asset poor.” This meant that nearly half of all households have less than $5,887 in savings and “do not have a basic safety net to weather emergencies or prepare for future needs, such as a child’s college education or homeownership.”
That point bolsters recent research that shows the alarming likelihood that most Americans will experience poverty at some point in their lives. Mark Rank, a sociologist at Washington University in St. Louis, recently crunched the numbers and discovered that three in five Americans will eke it out in the lowest 20 percentile of income distribution at least once before they turn 60. Forty percent of Americans, he found, will spend at least a year in the bottom 10 percentile. One-fourth of the population will experience five or more years of poverty.
“Relative poverty is an economic condition that will strike the majority of Americans,” Rank said.
The short answer: The United States has a lot of poor people. At any moment, it could have many more, striking with maddening caprice and ensnaring those who would have never expected to collect food stamps or government benefits. No matter how you square it, Bush’s testimony on American poverty wasn’t accurate. But, inaccurate numbers notwithstanding, he did separate himself from the rest of the hopefuls in one salient way.
He at least mentioned poverty.
This story has been updated.