More “New Poverty” Abuse

Mickey Kaus Columnist
Font Size:
More New Poverty Con: How will the Obama administration’s misleading “New Poverty” line be abused? By columnists like the NYT‘s Charles Blow and reporters for the AP, for starters. From Blow’s 12/17 op-ed:
An Associated Press report this week on census data found that “a record number of Americans — nearly 1 in 2 — have fallen into poverty or are scraping by on earnings that classify them as low income.” The report said that the data “depict a middle class that’s shrinking.”
Blow apparently just doesn’t have space to tell readers that the AP was using the new “supplemental” poverty line, not the official one they’re familiar with.  What the AP actually discovered was that by changing the poverty line to this new more expansive measure–a measure, in part, of income inequality and not absolute poverty–the Census Bureau can now bring 146 million people–almost half the U.S. population–under 200% of the (new) poverty line (versus a mere 104 million using the traditional poverty line).
What the AP did not find is that this “nearly 1 in 2” was a “record.” It’s only “nearly 1 in 2” because they changed the measurement.  Using the traditional poverty measure it’s 1 in 3. But if you read Blow’s column quickly, without realizing he’d switched poverty lines, you could be excused from thinking that the “low income” percentage of the population had soared from it’s usual level of around 33% to 48%.  In fact it increased from 30.5 percent in 2006 to 33.9 % today (if you use the traditional measure for both years).
None of these percentages is a record. In 1993, as President Clinton took office, 35.2% of Americans were under 200% of poverty (again using the old poverty line). At the bottom of the 1982 recession, the figure was 36.6%.  Calculations using “new poverty” don’t go back that far, but the “nearly 1 in 2” figure was undoubtedly worse in the early 1980s.
The only way  poverty–or 200% of poverty– is at a “record” level is if you simply measure the absolute number of people who fall below the line, not their percentage of the population. The country is much bigger now than it was in 1982 or even 1992. Even if the 200%-of-poverty rate had fallen from 36.6% in 1982 to 28% today(which would represent huge social progress) there would still be a “record” number of people below the 200% line simply because 36.6% of 229 million Americans is smaller than 28% of 305 million Americans.
Maybe Americans are less outraged by today’s income stats than Blow would like because they intuitively realize these things–not because they are in “denial,” as Blow charges.  If they’re confused by the MSM hype of the Census’ new income measurements , they are not fundamentally misled. The New Poverty Line isn’t doing its job.
Mickey Kaus