New Orleans Is poverty up, down, or about the same? No one seems to know, but we’ll still pretend they care about the answer. Regardless, the question remains as experts, policymakers, and politicians continue to debate the numbers, while people who in fact ARE the numbers, continue to be desperately and disappointingly poor in the richest nation on earth.
Once again, I read the latest stab at this problem in a long recurring series of similar columns in other papers and news sources. This one was in the Wall Street Journal and was perhaps appropriately in a “The Numbers” column, since it’s probably a lot more comfortable to talk about the numbers than the people.
The rough outline of the debate goes back to the Johnson administration and a Social Security staffer, Mollie Orshansky, who set the poverty level to one of the Agriculture Department’s basic food plans in 1963 and multiplied by three while also allowing for different family sizes. Sixty years later, “This still remains the basis for the official poverty rate: If your pretax income exceeds this threshold from 1963, after adjusting for inflation, you aren’t officially in poverty.” In 2011, there was an adjustment by the Census Bureau to include supplemental items like tax credits and other expenses for clothing, healthcare, housing, and utilities that were not part of the Orshansky line. Columnist Josh Zumbrun is clear that by either measure, whether $29,000 or up to $35,000 for a family of four, you’re poor.
From that point on, Zumbrun falls into the weeds. He talks about “hardship” as a standard and goes back and forth with Matthew Desmond, author and now professor, specializing in poverty. I found this confusing, because it was no longer about the numbers really, but more about subjective arguments from both sides of their mouths that were being bent in the direction of trying to diminish the importance of cash transfers, seemingly both of them appealing to the most and worst conservative arguments. They would bemoan insecure housing, unmet medical needs, and lack of food security as important determinants of poverty, seemingly saying that these hardship factors were not reflected in the numbers, but then Zumbrun argued that other data seemed to indicate there was progress around health and food access. He closed with a perplexing quote from Desmond that I would bet is out of context and that Desmond would find unfortunate in this column, where he says, “Poverty isn’t just about how low your income is, it is how healthy you are, how much agency you have in your life, how secure your housing is. Cash transfers can really matter, but we have to make sure the money we put in their pockets stays.”
Any way you try to pretzel these questions and the numbers, it is not a proposition of whether or not cash transfers “can really matter,” since they not only always matter but are essential. Furthermore, they are universally inadequate. Yes, poverty isn’t just about income, but income is at the root of all poverty and lack of income is where it all starts. I’m all for making sure food, medical access, and housing part of the equation, but let’s not be mealy-mouthed about it: we have to substantially increase the money in peoples’ pockets before we can worry a whole lot about how to keep it there. These academic and journalistic efforts to count the number of angels on the pin can’t take our focus off the fact that the poor have to have more money. Period. Speculation about the lack of progress back and forth in eradicating poverty can’t avoid the conclusion that the inability to increase payments to the poor, and, in fact, the consistent efforts to destroy the welfare system and deprive the poor of money is the fundamental reason we have not met the needs of our society should demand to end poverty.