We’ve all heard the ugly conservative spout over dinner: America has no “real” poverty – in the ‘hood, it’s wall-to-wall Nikes, iPhones and gold chains – and they’re all overweight from eating McDonald’s every day.
It’s true that poverty measures are imperfect – and that their design is as subjective as our views on what constitutes material deprivation. However there are many other measures – which are not subjective – which corroborate the poverty rate, revealing an America with far more poverty than other developed countries, and especially high poverty rates for children.
Simply: we know that poverty in America is real because it’s effects are real. That is, the people we identify as poor are measurably different from other people in many ways. This is the key insight for anyone with doubts about measures of American poverty.
American children born into poverty are more likely to engage in crime later in life. Girls who grew up in poverty are much more likely to have babies as teens, and outside of marriage as adults. Poor American children are far less likely to be reported as being in excellent health, and are more likely to have asthma, diabetes, hearing, vision and speech problems. As they move into adulthood, they are more likely to have heart disease, and are more likely to die at any given age.
Poor kids are 50% more likely to die before age 14, and twice as likely to repeat a grade, be expelled or fail to finish high school. The gap in college graduation may be as high as 50 percentage points.
Remarkably, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, brain scans of poor American children are markedly different: their brain structures related to memory, emotion and speech are visibly smaller – and such differences have been correlated with deficits and difficulties throughout life.
To go with the highest child poverty rate in the developed world, America also has very high child mortality. American children are twice as likely to die before their 5th birthday compared to children in most other rich countries. American infants are about twice as likely to die in their first year compared to infants in countries with the lowest infant mortality rates.
Poverty typically is measured either in relative or absolute terms. A relative measure – like the one used by OECD – defines poverty as being below a function of some percentage of a country’s median income. An absolute measure – like the one used by the US Census Bureau – fixes a definite poverty line, based on the ability to consume a specific basket of goods and-or services. There are also hybrid measures – but America’s poverty rate is high no matter the method you choose.
Across countries, the generosity of social welfare is highly predictive of the poverty rate. Contrary to conservative mythologies, generous welfare tends to reduce poverty, and is not correlated with high unemployment, crime, government debt, or other ills. The fact that health care is very expensive in the US tends to mask the pittance that the US spends on welfare, compared to other countries with much lower poverty rates. Almost all of the increase in aid to the poor over the past 40 years has come in the form of Medicaid.
In other rich countries, with lower poverty rates, aid to the poor primarily comes in the form of cash. The US began long ago with cash subsidies, but has since moved more toward in-kind support: Medicaid, Food Stamps, housing, e.g. – seemingly with the philosophy that the poor cant be trusted to make spending decisions. And research shows that cash transfers are far more effective at reducing poverty.
AFDC/TANF – the programs designed specifically to aid poor families with children – have seen deep cuts in benefits since the 1970s – while poverty rates for the under 65 population have increased. Before AFCD became TANF (in the mid-90s), about 2/3 of all poor families with children received benefits. Today, under TANF, their participation rate has fallen to 1/4.
The good news is that we have a wealth of experience about what works and what doesnt in public assistance. Giving money to the poor really is effective at alleviating poverty. Poverty in America is all too real. Fortunately, the cure can be too.
How Poverty is Measured: