Here's Speaker of the House Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) full remarks at the 2016 GOP convention, during which he said it's time to unify the Republican Party. (The Washington Post)

In his speech Tuesday night at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Paul D. Ryan called on his audience to engage in a substantive debate with their political opponents. He also talked briefly about poverty, an issue that the House speaker has devoted much of his political career to studying.

In discussing poverty, however, Ryan glossed over some important facts about trends in the number of Americans who are poor.

Progressives "like to talk forever about poverty in America, and if high-sounding talk did any good, we'd have overcome those deep problems long ago," the Republican from Wisconsin said. "This explains why under the most liberal president we have had so far, poverty in America is worse."

Ryan might have been referring to the official measure of poverty, which is indeed historically high. For the past several years, about 15 percent of Americans have been poor according to this measure. There have been only a couple of occasions in the past half-century when the official rate has reached that level.

Yet other factors could explain the elevated figures, including the Great Recession in 2008, which put many Americans out of work. Before President Obama took office, the official rate of poverty had been increasing under the Bush administration. According to the Census Bureau, the figure increased from 11.7 percent in 2001 to 13.2 percent in 2008.

During the current administration, that increase in poverty has reversed somewhat. The official rate reached 15.1 percent in 2010 and had declined to 14.5 percent by 2013.

What's more, many researchers prefer not to use this official measure, since it does not account for certain public benefits, such as food stamps. Because of these programs, fewer families are really poor than would be otherwise. Indeed, the census recently began producing an alternative measure of poverty to supplement the official one, and other researchers have applied the new method to historical data.

Based on this supplemental measure, the figures on poverty under Obama are more encouraging.


This measure also indicates that a greater share of Americans are poor now than were poor under the Bush or Clinton administrations. Yet the current rate is moderate by historical standards — below its level throughout much of the Reagan administration.

Over the long term, according to the more comprehensive measure, poverty has declined substantially as a result of public benefits such as food stamps.

Last month, Ryan and his Republican colleagues in the House released a document calling for changes to federal poverty policy. The introduction offered a more detailed explanation of how GOP policymakers view the data and the benefits from programs.

"Though these programs have helped people cope with poverty, they haven’t helped people get out of poverty," they wrote.

In other words, Ryan and his colleagues think it is misleading to include the effects of food stamps and similar programs in the data on poverty. On this reasoning, even if some American families are materially better off because of those programs, they are still poor because they rely on public assistance.

More from Wonkblog:

Poverty in the 50 years since 'The Other America,' in five charts

The striking power of poverty to turn young boys into jobless men

Black poverty differs from white poverty