Poverty and Income Inequality Don’t Just Happen

November 12, 2013

Now, here’s an interesting fact to chew over. If the wealth in this country were evenly distributed among adults, each of us would have $301,000.

By this measure, we’re not the wealthiest country in the world. That distinction goes to tiny Switzerland, according to the latest Global Wealth report from Credit Suisse.

But we’ve got, by far and away, the highest percent of millionaires (42%) — and an even larger share (46.5%) of all the people with more than $50 million in the 19 countries the Credit Suisse analysts could compile data far.

At the same time, we’ve got 15% of the population — 46.5 million people — so poor as to fall below the Census Bureau’s very low poverty thresholds.

Blogger Matt Bruenig crunched some numbers and found that it would take $175.3 billion to lift every one of them out of poverty, as officially defined.

That may seem like a great deal of money. But it’s only a bit over 1% of the value of the goods and services our country produced last year — and according to my number-crunching, only about $3,770 per person.

Now, I don’t want to lend credibility to the troll who alleges that I’m a “commie terrorist,” but these numbers do get the mind churning.

On the one hand, the Credit Suisse figures underscore how unevenly wealth is distributed. On the other hand, Bruenig’s indicate how relatively little we’d have to redistribute to end poverty — well, not really, but at least according to the measure we use.

As Bruenig says, we have mechanisms to do this. We could, for example, expand the refundable Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit. We could expand SNAP (the food stamp program), instead of arguing over how much to cut it.

We could, Bruenig adds, establish a “mild basic income and a negative income tax.” These aren’t radically leftist notions.

Economist Milton Friedman, whom no one would call a leftist, proposed a negative income tax back in 1962. As he described it, people would file tax returns and get a refund of sorts for some portion of however much their income fell below the threshold at which they would owe anything.

This ultimately became the basis for the EITC, but the tax credit helps only people who work and their dependents. And it does very little for parents who earn very little and for those who are childless, even if their earnings are fairly decent.

Though Friedman viewed the NIT as an alternative to existing welfare programs, it wouldn’t have to be. On the other hand, it could replace them if the refunds were big enough to pay for basic needs.

I know economists have concerns about disincentives to work — as, of course, do policymakers. Comfortable hammock and all that.

And perhaps there’s something to this, though I note that we don’t seem to have these concerns when the issue is what are effectively income supports for people who are already well-off, e.g., the various tax benefits to homeowners.

These alone would pay for more than half the cost of lifting everybody out of poverty, according to Joint Taxation Committee estimates that Bruenig cites.

The basic point here, which Bruenig makes well, is that poverty is a function of policies that distribute income unevenly, not a spontaneous phenomenon. Wealth likewise, I’d add.

Policies built into the federal tax code are an obvious example — not only so-called tax expenditures in the individual income tax system, but the tax treatment of assets that are passed on to heirs.

State and local tax policies also enter into the picture, since, on average, they collect the highest percent of income from residents in the bottom fifth of the income scale and the lowest percent of all for the top 1%.

Less obvious, but surely important are school financing policies, which tend to provide significantly more resources for the schools wealthy kids can attend and shortchange the schools for the poorest, who arguably need more.

Insofar as a good education increases future earnings, the uneven distribution of tax dollars contributes to uneven income distribution in successive generations.

Diverse labor policies also affect earnings, of course. These have generally tended to depress wage growth for the vast majority of workers.  And the savings they enable businesses to achieve go to owners, who may be shareholders — and in many large corporations, to CEOs.

Housing, transportation and urban development policies have also played a part by concentrating poor people in pockets of poverty, with limited access to jobs and, as aforementioned, good schools.

I’m sure some of you can think of others.

In short (after what perhaps should have been shorter), poverty and income inequality don’t just happen. We’ve created them — or at the very least, made decisions that foster them.

By the same token, we could make decisions to reduce them. We’ve got the wealth and a wealth of ideas. Not, however, the political will that can come only from a broad consensus that creating the conditions for shared prosperity is a must-do.


Better Poverty Measure Shows Worse U.S. Poverty Rate

November 6, 2013

We should be used to this by now. The Census Bureau has just reported a higher national poverty rate than the rate it reported in September. According to its Supplemental Poverty Measure, the rate is 16%, instead of 15%, as the official measure indicated.*

This means that somewhat over 2.7 million more people — a total of 49.7 million — were living in poverty last year. On a somewhat brighter note, the percent of people living in severe poverty, i.e., below 50% of the applicable threshold, is again lower — by 1.5% — than the official measure shows.

We again see shifts up and down for state-level rates as well.

For example, the rate for the District of Columbia rises from 19.3% to 22.7%, according to the three-year averages the Census Bureau uses for the SPM. Rates based on the three-year averages dropped in 28 states and increased more than the District’s in five.

As in the past, we also see shifts in rates for different age and race/ethnicity groups. For example, the poverty rate for blacks dips from 27.3% to 25.8%, while the poverty rate for Asians rises from 11.8% to 16.7%.

The poverty rate for non-Hispanic whites is till the lowest, but it’s higher than the official rate — 10.7%, as compared to 9.8%.

The rate changes all reflect differences between the crude, official measure and the SPM, which goes at poverty measurement in a different — and more sensible — way.

I’ll forgo another summary of how the SPM works. I took a stab at one last year and the year before. And the Census Bureau has a more extensive (and wonkish) explanation in its report.

From a policy perspective, both the overall higher poverty rate and the rate shifts are especially important because they show both the impacts and the limits of major federal benefits programs.

So far as the rate shifts are concerned, the most striking are those for the young and the old.

  • The child poverty rate drops from 22.3% to 18%, reducing the number of children in poverty by about 3.2 million.
  • For children, the severe poverty rate is less than half what it is under the official measure — 4.7%, as compared to 10.3%.
  • The poverty rate for seniors rises from 9.1% to 14.8%, increasing the number of poor people 65 and older by nearly 2.5 million.
  • The severe poverty rate for seniors also rises, from 2.7% to 4.7%.

The higher rates for seniors reflect principally the amount they spend on medical out-of-pockets, e.g., deductibles, copays.

This seems to me pretty good evidence that the chained CPI, which could still become the new cost-of-living adjustment measure for Social Security benefits, would disadvantage the 36% of seniors who rely almost entirely on them, as well as younger people who receive them because they’re severely disabled.

At this point, however, Social Security remains by far and away the single most effective anti-poverty program we’ve got. The SPM report shows that, without it, 26.6 million more people of all ages would have been poor — and the poverty rate for seniors a whopping 54.7%.

The report speaks to another issue that Congress is debating — and one that it isn’t, but should deal with swiftly.

The hot issue is SNAP (the food stamp program) — not whether to cut it because Congress has already done that, but by how much more.

So it’s useful to know that pre-cut SNAP benefits lifted 4.9 million people, including 2.2 million children, out of poverty last year. They were the single most important factor in the marked drop in severe child poverty, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports.

The back-burner issue is the soon-to-expire Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, i.e., cash benefits for workers who’ve been jobless longer than their regular state programs cover.

I may have more to say about this, but will note here that unemployment insurance benefits generally reduced the SPM poverty rate by somewhat less than 1% — about 2.54million people.

UI benefits have lifted fewer and fewer people out of poverty since 2009 — mainly because fewer jobless workers are receiving them, according to a recent CBPP analysis based on other Census figures.

Retrenchments Congress made in the EUC program in early 2012 are part of this story. I suppose more recent figures would show the impact of sequestration as well.

House and Senate negotiators apparently still hope to stop the across-the-board cuts — at least for while. But this is a far cry from an agenda that would bring the very high poverty rate back down to where it was when we rang in the 21st century.

* The SPM report cites 15.1% for the official measure, noting that this is not statistically significant from the previously reported figure. Several other official measure figures in the report also differ from those the Census Bureau earlier reported.

The differences, if I understand correctly, reflect the fact that the SPM universe includes children under 15 who are living in a household with adults to whom they’re not related. For comparability, I’m using the official measure figures in the SPM report here.


DC Poverty Rate Ticks Down (Maybe)

September 19, 2013

Hard on the Census Bureau’s Income, Poverty and Health Insurance report come results from the American Community Survey. And, as the headline indicates, the overall D.C. poverty rate seemingly dropped — but barely. So little, in fact, that the percent difference from 2011 is within the margin of error.*

More detail on that, plus some other gleanings from the survey.

Poverty Rates a Mixed Story

The poverty rate in the District apparently declined from 18.7% in 2011 to 18.2% in 2012. This left about 108,860 residents below the very low poverty thresholds — just $23,283 for a two-parent, two-child family. And, as I noted, the margin of error — 1.3% — casts doubt on real improvement.

Assuming a real drop, the poverty rate was still 1.8% higher than in 2007, just before the recession set in. It was also 3.2% higher than the national rate.**

The extreme poverty rate, i.e., the percent of residents living below 50% of the applicable threshold, effectively flat-lined at 10.4%. In other words, more than 62, 200 residents were devastatingly poor, especially when we consider the high costs of living in D.C.

As in the past, the child poverty rate was much higher than the overall rate. It was 26.5% last year. So nearly 28,590 D.C. children were officially poor. Well over half of them — 15.8% — lived in extreme poverty.

Both the plain vanilla and the extreme poverty rates for children were lower than in 2011 — the former by 3.8%. But they were both higher than in 2007, when the child poverty rate was 22.7% and the extreme poverty rate for children 12%.

They were also both higher than the national rates. These, as I earlier reported, were 21.8% and 9.7%.

Race/Ethnicity Gaps Still Very Large

Well, let’s just say One City we ain’t — not, at any rate, from the story the ACS figures tell. For example:

  • The black poverty rate was nearly three times the rate for non-Hispanic whites — 25.7%, as compared to 7.4%.
  • For blacks, the extreme poverty rate was 14.5%, while for non-Hispanic whites only 5.2%.
  • For Hispanics, the poverty rate was 22.1% and the extreme poverty rate 10.2%.

We see similar disparities in median household income.

  • The median income for non-Hispanic white households was a very comfortable $110,619.
  • For black households, the median income was barely more than a third of that — $39,139.
  • Hispanic households did better, on average, with a median income of $51,460.

The white, non-Hispanic household median was notably higher here than the nationwide, by $53,610. The medians for black and Hispanic households were also higher, though by much smaller amounts.

Some Clues to the Poverty Rates

Needless to say (I hope), unemployment and under-employment go far to explaining the persistently high poverty rates in the District.

In 2012, nearly half (48.1%) of poor residents between the ages of 16 and 64 didn’t work at all. An additional 25% worked less than full-time or intermittently.

But that leaves about 8,618 working-age residents who were employed full-time, year round and still not earning enough to lift them out of poverty — or at least, not them and dependent family members.

It’s a fair guess that these are mostly residents who don’t have the formal education credentials that living wage jobs here, as elsewhere, increasingly demand. This is probably also the case for some of the part-time and some-time employed.

What we do know is that the poverty rate for adults 25 years and older who had just a high school diploma or the equivalent was 22.8% last year — and for those with less, 34.5%.

By contrast, the poverty rate for those with at least a four-year college degree was just 5.1%.

What Could Narrow The Gaps?

Well, we won’t solve the unemployment problem overnight.

Even if Congress restored the federal jobs lost to sequestration (highly improbable), the local near-term unemployment rate would probably be somewhere in the neighborhood of 8%, judging from Gray administration estimates.

And it would probably be considerably higher for the least educated residents, if the trends the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reported for 2012 continue.

Getting more residents qualified for high-skill jobs would surely help. But we’d still have a very large low-wage sector — all those hotels, restaurants and other retail businesses.

The brouhaha over the Large Retailers Accountability Act, a.k.a the Walmart bill, has spun off into what seems to be serious consideration of raising the District’s minimum wage — and its tip credit wage too perhaps.

A full-time, year round minimum wage worker currently can’t earn enough to lift a three-person family over the poverty threshold — even if s/he never takes even a few hours of unpaid time off because of illness.

So a reasonably robust, comprehensive increase would be a step in the right direction. Granting tipped workers a right to some paid leave would help too.

Far from a total answer, but things the DC Council could do right now.

* Because the survey sample size for the District is relatively small, the margins of error, i.e., the amounts the reported percents could be too high or too low, are sometimes more than 1%. In the interests of simplicity, I’m reporting the percents as given.

** As the Census Bureau advises, I’m using the results of the Current Population Survey for the national figures. The national ACS figures are somewhat different.


Offical U.S. Poverty Stays Flat at 15%

September 17, 2013

I was all set to write about how the official U.S. poverty rate dipped down, as experts had predicted. But no. The Census Bureau reported this morning that the 2012 rate was statistically the same as in 2011 — 15%.

The economy has supposedly been in a recovery mode since June 2009, but the poverty rate hasn’t budged for three years now. It’s still 2.5% higher than in 2007, just before the recession set in — and in fact, a bit higher than the year the recession officially ended.

As I and many others have often cautioned, the official rate is based on an over-simple, outdated measure that understates the number of people who barely — if at all — have enough to live on.

It also, as some examples below indicate, fails to capture the anti-poverty impacts of many of our major safety net programs.

At this point, however, the results it produces are what we’ve got. And the measure is consistent from year to year. So trends are reasonably reliable.

Here then is some of what we learn from the poverty portion of the new report.

The Big Numbers

All told, nearly 46.5 million people were poor enough to fall below the Census Bureau’s very low poverty thresholds — about $18,500 for a parent and two children, for example.

Though the poverty rate is the same, it represents about 249,000 more people than in 2011.

Of these, 6.6% — 20.4 million — were so poor as to fall below 50% of the applicable threshold, i.e., to have lived in what’s commonly referred to as extreme poverty.

Both the rate and the raw number are the same as in 2011 — and not surprisingly, higher than in 2007, when somewhat under 15.6 million people were in extreme poverty.

Race-Ethnicity Gaps

Poverty rates for all major race-ethnicity groups also flat-lined. So the disparities remained very large. For example:

  • The black poverty rate was nearly three times the rate for white, non-Hispanics — 27.2%, as compared to 9.7%.
  • The poverty rate for Hispanics was 25.6%.
  • For Asians, the poverty rate was 11.7%.

The extreme poverty rates mirror these gaps — only 4.3% for white, non-Hispanics and a somewhat higher 5.7% for Asians, but 10.1% for Hispanics and 12.7% for blacks.

Married and Single

The disparity between poverty rates for married couples and families headed by a single person also remained extraordinarily large.

For families headed by a single woman, the rate was nearly five times times the rate for married couples — 30.9%, as compared to 6.3%.

The gap was smaller for families headed by a single man, but 14.6% of them were still officially poor.

Young and Old

As in the past, the child poverty rate, i.e., for people under 18, was considerably higher than the rate for the 65 and older crowd.

  • The child poverty rate was 21.8% — statistically the same as in 2011. Nearly 16.1 million children were officially poor — more than a third of all people in poverty.
  • More than 7.1 million children — 9.7% — lived in extreme poverty.
  • By contrast, the poverty rate for seniors was 9.1% and their extreme poverty rate just 2.7%.

We can chalk the age disparities up largely to the oft-maligned Social Security programs. Without them, the senior poverty rate would have been nearly four times greater.

However, the disparities are larger than they would be if the Census Bureau used a less crude measure, as we see in the results of last year’s Supplemental Poverty Measure.

The Bureau didn’t preview its SPM figures this year, but it did the equivalent with a few examples of what researchers can learn by using its table creator tool.

So we learn that counting the the Earned Income Tax Credit would reduce the number of poor children by 3.1 million. And if SNAP (the food stamp program) benefits were counted, 4 million fewer people would have qualified as poor.

I don’t suppose I need to say that these benefits are squarely in the House Republicans’ bull’s eye.

Policies to ensure that the economic benefits of the recovery reach the very large number of poor and near-poor working families in this country seem a distant dream.

But the new poverty figures ought to be a wake-up call.


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