The Poverty Debate: Why We Don’t Agree on The Same Set of Facts

The political realm is a great place to toil if you aspire to be an armchair pugilist. Without much personally at stake in the outcome of  the poverty debate, it is easy to pick a side and argue statistics and facts. But in the midst of all the fighting are real people being impacted by decisions outside of their control.

Such is the case when it comes to arguments between the political scientists of the left and right over welfare reform, and whether those at the bottom rungs are any better off despite numbers showing that millions of people were clearly lifted out of poverty as a result of the 1996 welfare reform law.

To this day, commentators on the left employ bogeyman language for the anti-poverty law — demonizing Newt Gingrich and House Republicans for coming up with legislation that Bill Clinton signed — while at the same time acknowledging that the percentage of people in poverty is demonstrably less than reflected in the antiquated methodology used to determine current poverty levels.

Take the words of Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute:

The official poverty rate is just above 15 percent, about a point larger than it was in 1996. But that measure is misleading, because it doesn’t take into account non-cash benefits and tax subsidies. According to Harvard University’s Christopher Jencks, the absolute poverty rate falls to under 5 percent when adjusted for food and housing, the earned income and children’s tax credit, and a more accurate measure of inflation.

Nonetheless, Jencks and other social policy researchers are concerned about the rise of “deep poverty” — an increase in the percentage of families whose income is less than 50 percent of the official poverty line.

Some liberal analysts blame welfare reform for gouging a huge hole in the social safety net. Even as unemployment soared during the Great Recession, they note, TANF caseloads stayed down. That meant fewer needy families were getting cash assistance when they needed it most.

That’s true, but it’s not the whole story. As cash assistance has shrunk, other forms of social support have grown and become more generous. These include unemployment insurance, food stamps (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) and disability programs. In fact, some conservatives complain that welfare reform hasn’t made poor single-parent families less dependent on government; it just transferred their dependence to other programs that lack TANF’s strong work requirements.

Marshall notes that welfare reform, courtesy of President Clinton or otherwise, helped reduce the number of people in poverty. The big problem now is the number of women with children who live in “deep poverty,” which is defined as people living on less than half the official poverty rate. Professors Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer recently wrote a book in which they demonstrate that “deep poverty” rose by 2.6 percentage points between 1996 and 2011, from 1.7 to 4.3 percent.

At the same time, however, the Manhattan Institute has released a study contradicting the numbers, while saying something similar to Marshall from a completely opposite perspective.

Practically no children of single mothers were living on $2 a day in either 1996 or 2012 (the latest year for which we have reliable statistics), once the receipt of all government benefits are factored in. In 2012, fewer than one in 1,500 children of single mothers were living in what is called “extreme poverty.” This finding is consistent with other research.

Herein lies the challenge. If both sides agree that “official poverty statistics can create a misleading impression that hardship has increased,” then both sides must get out from beyond their political lens to evaluate not whether welfare reform has been a net positive — it has — but what’s the next step.

Progress is being made. More needs to be done. But the debate must start from the perspective of not what should be done, but whether we can eradicate poverty or whether it will always exist to some extent.

Then it’s a matter of determining how much help is enough to ensure that the least among of us has the means to live in safety and with dignity. This is where agreement is elusive and where next measures stall. Determining what those in deep poverty need, want, and are capable of contributing could go a long way to getting past arguments over whether six in one is equal to a half dozen in the other.