The government’s so-called War on Poverty has been a dismal failure, largely because giving people money as a condition of being poor is a very good way of ensuring that some of them will choose to remain poor. But now the White House wants to make a bad situation even worse by concocting a new definition of poverty completely divorced from reality. As Robert Samuelson explains in his Washington Post column, this rigged system means that the poverty rate would remain the same even if every person in America suddenly had twice as much income:
…the poor’s material well-being has improved. The official poverty measure obscures this by counting only pre-tax cash income and ignoring other sources of support. These include the earned-income tax credit (a rebate to low-income workers), food stamps, health insurance (Medicaid), and housing and energy subsidies. Spending by poor households from all sources may be double their reported income, reports a study by Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute. Although many poor live hand-to-mouth, they’ve participated in rising living standards. In 2005, 91 percent had microwaves, 79 percent air conditioning and 48 percent cellphones. …the administration’s…new poverty number would compound public confusion. It also raises questions about whether the statistic is tailored to favor a political agenda. The “supplemental measure” ties the poverty threshold to what the poorest third of Americans spend on food, housing, clothes and utilities. The actual threshold — not yet calculated — will almost certainly be higher than today’s poverty line. Moreover, the new definition has strange consequences. Suppose that all Americans doubled their incomes tomorrow, and suppose that their spending on food, clothing, housing and utilities also doubled. That would seem to signify less poverty — but not by the new poverty measure. It wouldn’t decline, because the poverty threshold would go up as spending went up. Many Americans would find this weird: People get richer but “poverty” stays stuck. …The new indicator is a “propaganda device” to promote income redistribution by showing that poverty is stubborn or increasing, says the Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector. He has a point. The Census Bureau has estimated statistics similar to the administration’s proposal. In 2008, the traditional poverty rate was 13.2 percent; estimates of the new statistic range up to 17 percent. The new poverty statistic exceeds the old, and the gap grows larger over time. To paraphrase the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan: The administration is defining poverty up. It’s legitimate to debate how much we should aid the poor or try to reduce economic inequality. But the debate should not be skewed by misleading statistics that not one American in 100,000 could possibly understand. Government statistics should strive for political neutrality. This one fails.