The poverty of “near poverty”
Not “poor” but “poor adjacent”? A stat too far: Let’s just suppose, as a thought experiment, that the New York Times is a liberal conspiracy. In this hypothetical alternate reality, the paper’s editors would like the government to do more to redress the material disparities generated by our version of capitalism, and they commission stories designed to bring this better world closer. They might think it a brilliant idea to get the U.S. Census Bureau to calculate, not just how many people are poor according to the government’s fancy new Supplemental Poverty Measure (which takes into account regional cost of living, and government benefits like food stamps, plus medical expenses and taxes**) but how many are under 150% of this new poverty line. Not poor, but “near poor.” Bet there are a lot of them!
Sure enough, the Times was able to come up with a headline, “The ‘Near Poor Struggle, and Startle the Census.” All the quoted Census official said was “These numbers are higher than we anticipated,” not “we were startled”–but that’s probably just because she is a mild-mannered census official! It was enough, in any case to trigger a professional-grade fuzzily portentous front page “comes-at-a-time” graf that manages to rope in Occupy Wall Street:
After a lost decade of flat wages and the worst downturn since the Great Depression, the findings can be thought of as putting numbers to the bleak national mood — quantifying the expressions of unease erupting in protests and political swings. They convey levels of economic stress sharply felt but until now hard to measure.
But the conspirators also made some mistakes. They let Jason DeParle co-write the story. DeParle wrote a terrific, heartbreaking, important book about the urban poor and welfare–but perhaps because of that experience he’s aware of the non-liberal views of poverty and the sense in which they contain more than a germ of truth. He is, in a word, unreliable.***
So the NYT piece notes, in its lede graf, that within this “near poor” category “many own homes.” Some 20 percent of the “near poor,” it turns out, own their homes mortgage-free. One reason they don’t earn much income may be because they don’t need it to pay the rent! And DeParle contacts Robert Rector of the Heritage Institute, who notes that “near poor” is a loaded term designed to “suggest to most people a level of material hardship that doesn’t exist.” Also:
–“Another surprising finding is that only a quarter of the near poor are insured, and 42 percent have private insurance.” Huh? I suspect DeParle and his co authors meant that only a quarter are uninsured–the only way to make sense of the sentence, given that more than a quarter have private insurance (and many of the rest are old and on Medicare). The Times reporters were probably led into error by their copyeditors, who didn’t understand how a scare piece about poverty could have a vaguely reassuring statistic, or who were just on Nina Bernstein Autopilot and let the “un” drop. I mean, if only a quarter are uninsured why publish the piece? How does that help the cause?
— “Perhaps the most surprising finding is that 28 percent work full-time, year round.” The Times thinks this 28 percent figure is surprisingly high. (“These estimates defy the stereotypes of low-income families,” says the Census official). Does 28% seem high to you? To me it seems low. I mean, I always assumed the whole point of a “near poor” stat is to capture the masses of working poor, the people who make the minimum wage and actually try to live on it. It turns out that the “near poor” are mainly not those people. (In the overall population, only 41 percent work full time. That seems shockingly low too. There’s your lede!)
–The Times‘ big Real People example of “near poverty” is an appealing couple who both work, make “about $51,000 a year,” and are about to move into a new home. They are “living paycheck to paycheck.” But they serve mainly to show how diluted the concept of “near poverty” is. Under the Times‘ standard, I was probably near-poor in recent years. I’ve been living “paycheck to paycheck” for most of the past decade. So have half my friends. And the point is? ….
A no-cushion lifestyle may be shocking to reporters at the New York Times. They call it “near poverty.” We call it “living.” Welcome to America, Pinchpeople!
— “Bruce Meyer, an economist at the University of Chicago, warned that the numbers are likely to mask considerable diversity. Some households, especially the elderly, may have considerable savings.” The “near poor” category also includes unemployed 23 year old college graduates from wealthy families, stockbrokers who had a really bad year, moderately paid workers who live in Silicon Valley (where, thanks to the cost-of-living correction, you can make $51,000 and still be “near poor”). Indeed, the vast diversity of the “near poor” category makes it virtually useless. It is a granfalloon, Kurt Vonnegut’s term for a false class of people.
–The uselessness of the “near poverty” number casts a retrospective suspicion on the traditional “poverty” number. If there are so many 150% -of-poverty “near poor” people who aren’t really in bad shape, how much diversity is there concealed under the actual 100%-of-poverty line, new or “supplemental”? One example: as society grows richer, you’d think more people would be able to take a year off and live off their assets. Yet they show up as poor–because the poverty numbers measure income, not wealth. (I qualified for the low-income Earned Income Tax Credit once when I owned a house in Georgetown. There was no asset test.) I’m not saying these people are a significant portion of the statistically poor. But they’re probably a growing portion (maybe even the “fastest growing portion,” to use the standard journalistic con that makes the growth of a small population seem significant). By extending the Census definition of poverty a bridge too far, the Times may have undermined the power of all Census definitions of poverty, even the previously accepted ones.
–I’m also suspicious of the way the fancy new poverty measure takes into account regional variations in the cost of living and medical expenses. I live in an expensive part of an expensive region because it is worth it to me. I could live in North Dakota. Does that make me “poor” or have I chosen to consume in one way (nice town) rather than another? Likewise, if you deduct all expenses from income before measuring it–medical expenses, and why not also rent and food?–what does that leave you with? A measure of the amount of income that’s left over to spend on movies and chia pets? With the old poverty measure, you knew what it meant and had a good idea of what people had to buy with it. The new measure tries to do the thinking for you, leaving you with something that seems less meaningful, an artifact of expert pre-judgment and manipulation.
**–P.S.: We’re the 33%! But wait. If you read the Census’ publication on the “Supplemental Poverty Measure” used by the NYT, you’ll see it’s not as bad as I’ve made it out to be. It’s worse! Much worse. That’s because, unlike the old poverty line, it doesn’t measure Americans’ absolute level of material well-being or destitution, but their relative measure of well being. It’s pegged to the expenditures of the 33d percentile rather than a fixed amount of purchasing power (set, under the old poverty line, at three times the cost of a “minimum food diet” in 1963). Under the old poverty line, “poverty” could be eliminated as society got richer–an achievable and widely shared goal. But the new poverty line will rise as society gets richer (“adjust for rising levels and standards of living”). The newly measured poor will always be with us in substantial numbers, just as there will always be a third of the American population trapped in the bottom third of the income charts. That will yield a permanent, inextinguishable stream of NYT front page “poverty” stat stories–even if “poverty” no longer means “poverty” in the sense we now understand the term.
The only way to reduce poverty under the new, relative measure–as Robert Rector notes–is to have those at the bottom gain income faster than those around the 33d percentile. The Times‘ favorite “poverty” line is now a measure of inequality, not absolute want–when its moral and political force derives largely because it’s thought of as a measure of absolute want, not inequality. If I were inclined to be paranoid–and I am–I’d say it’s an audacious, slimy bait-and-switch by liberal activists inside the government anti-poverty bureacracy.
Maybe I’m missing something. If I’m not, it’s inexcusable that DeParle, et al didn’t explain to their readers that they were not using an absolute poverty line like the one the readers were familiar with, but a relative poverty line.
***–DeParle’s profile of John Tanton, who helped found Numbers USA and the Center for Immigration Studies, was also too fair to be the effective hit piece many immigration “comprehensivists” hoped for. …