Is the war on poverty ‘a success,’ as the Trump administration proclaims?
By Alfred Lubrano
Nearly 1 percent of all the people in poverty in the United States live in Philadelphia — one out of every 100 impoverished Americans.
Simple math explains that stark story: Nationwide, around 40 million people are at or below the poverty line, $21,000 annual salary for a family of three. Here, in a city of 1.5 million people where the poverty rate is 26 percent, the highest among the country’s biggest cities, there are nearly 400,000 residents living in poverty.
That’s why it surprised people in Philadelphia to hear the Trump administration declare this month: “Our War on Poverty is largely over and a success.”
If you stood on North Sixth Street in Fairhill, which is the poorest neighborhood in the city with a poverty rate of 61 percent — 75 percent for children — you might be forgiven if you looked around and asked, If this is victory, what does defeat look like?
“Up here,” said social worker Sandra Marrero, who works on the street, “you don’t see childhoods and you don’t see the American dream. Parents cry in gratitude if I give their kids a cookie.
“If I were a crier, I’d cry every minute of every day.”
‘Hardship has fallen’
President Ronald Reagan once famously said that the “federal government declared war on poverty, and poverty won.”
He used that as an argument to dismantle antipoverty programs.
On July 12, the White House Council of Economic Advisers issued a report that said the opposite: Poverty has been mostly defeated.
But its follow-up suggestion was essentially the same as Reagan’s: We must therefore limit programs like food stamps that help people in poverty.
The report added that the country should expand work requirements for people on Medicaid and food stamps, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. This would result in fewer people getting government help, and, the council added, higher levels of individual self-sufficiency.
“The vast majority of Americans are currently able to meet their basic needs such as housing and food,” the report found. The council also concluded that “homelessness is rare,” not many people are hungry, and “hardship has fallen drastically.”
The report dovetails with contemporary conservative beliefs that many people in poverty are not bereft of material benefits. They own cellphones, air conditioners, and televisions, which means to some observers that low-income Americans don’t appear to be suffering.
Compared with the bloated-belly, Third World-type starvation many in the United States experienced in the 1960s — before President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs elevated such Americans out of abject indigence — people today are much better off, conservatives say.
In praising the report, Robert Doar of the American Enterprise Institute wrote that increasing work requirements for SNAP and Medicaid would still allow the very poor to get aid, just less of it: Government agencies, he said, “can do the equivalent of walking and chewing gum: They can both provide financial aid and help people get to work.”
Angela Rachidi, a research fellow in poverty studies at the institute, said the people who receive government help “should be willing to give something back” by working for their benefits. She added that safety-net programs create “a disincentive for people to work.”
People who study, live with, or battle poverty found several problems with the White House report.
“We laughed when we read it,” said Glenn Bergman, executive director of Philabundance, the local hunger-relief agency. He denigrated the report as “a political document” meant to forward the conservative agenda, not a scientific finding on poverty.
First of all, said social work professor Luke Shaefer, director of Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan, “the evidence is abundant that poverty is still with us.”
He and others said that imposing work requirements on people receiving Medicaid and SNAP benefits could benefit some but runs the risk of causing people who really need help to lose it. Besides, he said, it would cost millions to create a bureaucracy just to check whether people are working.
Beyond that, most SNAP recipients who aren’t children, disabled, or elderly do have jobs, experts say. And there are more Medicaid recipients with “significant health issues” who cannot work than the council report indicates, said Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a director of the nonprofit Center for Law and Social Policy.
Echoing Bergman, David Elesh, emeritus sociology professor at Temple University, said: “This report is hilarious. It’s absolute Republican rubbish justifying cutting programs to assist people in poverty. No, the war on poverty is not a success. Absolutely not.”
Elesh, who spent nearly a decade compiling statistical reports on poverty with Temple’s Metropolitan Philadelphia Indicators Project, disputes the methodology used in the White House report. Others do, too.
Every official federal or state program that measures poverty uses statistics compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau, according to Elesh and others. These come from surveys of 50,000 households, said Mark Rank, a poverty expert and sociologist at Washington University in St. Louis.
The White House relied on information from 7,000 households for the report, Rank said.
More important, the study followed a so-called consumption reporting model that Lower-Basch dismissed as “idiosyncratic” and virtually never used. To determine poverty, people are not asked how much money they made, as the Census Bureau does. They are instead asked how much they spent on food and rent.
But Rank said people don’t always remember accurately. And they often don’t disclose that they may be paying for things with loans, which skews results. The report, Rank concluded, “cherry-picked facts that fit an ideological bent.”
One important result of using the consumption model is that the U.S. poverty rate comes out much lower — just 3 percent as opposed to the official census figure of 12.7 percent, Rank said.
(The Census Bureau has another way of expressing poverty, called the Supplemental Poverty Measure. It includes not only annual income but noncash government benefits people receive such as SNAP. That measure also differs significantly from the White House number, indicating that the U.S. poverty rate is 14.5 percent.)
Rachidi of the American Enterprise Institute defended the consumption model, saying that it’s a good way to learn whether people have decent shelter, money for basic necessities, and food to eat. By that measure, she said, “poverty is very low.”
The council report underscores the Republican notion that Americans should wean themselves off federal programs, experts said.
But that thinking may be based on a fallacy. While those who receive federal largesse are often criticized for being lazy takers, it turns out that 96 percent of U.S. adults have received benefits from among 21 different social policies, including Social Security, Medicaid, the home mortgage interest deduction, and SNAP, according to the political scientist Suzanne Mettler in a new book, The Government-Citizen Disconnect.
The Council of Economic Advisers’ report underscored the wide gap between what the White House says about poverty, and what researchers know.
“Anyone who believes what the Trump administration is saying about poverty is deluded,” said Mariana Chilton, the area’s leading hunger expert, whose recent research has shown that childhood hunger in North Philadelphia recently tripled.
“We should see this for what it is: a way to stigmatize people living in poverty, and to steal money from them.”
In Fairhill, Sandra Marrero’s husband, Pastor Juan Marrero, runs Crossroads Community Center, which serves the neighborhood in various ways, including fighting hunger. The other day, the couple were overseeing the feeding of 40 neighborhood children. The adults discussed the White House edict about the war on poverty’s success.
“Moms stretch those rice and beans meals, but it’s hard,” said Pastor Marrero, who once sold heroin to buy his mother a hot-water heater. He served five years’ probation. “Need is growing here, and it never stops. Declaring a success against poverty is asinine. We got post-traumatic stress up here.”
A local parent, Camille McCalla-Muldor, 39, a school janitor, said she believes the White House goal “is to frustrate you, to get you off food stamps.”
What the Council of Economic Advisers doesn’t know, and what President Trump doesn’t know, she said, is a simple Fairhill fact: “You can’t be happy in the daytime if you’re focused on somehow finding food for the night.
“People don’t understand the hopelessness of being in this. How is the war on poverty over if people are going to bed hungry?”