Has the federal government been overstating the poverty problem for decades? Friday's off-lead front-page New York Times story, 'Experts Say Bleak Portrait Of Poverty Missed the Mark – Census Bureau Will Offer an Alternate Approach,' reported by two welfare-beat reporters, Jason DeParle and Robert Gebeloff (along with Sabrina Tavernise), goes against the hysterical tone of DeParle's notorious jeremiad against President Clinton's ultimately successful welfare reform.
Friday's story uses a more complete picture to suggest poverty is rising more slowly in the recession than official data suggests.
When the Census Bureau said in September that the number of poor Americans had soared by 10 million to rates rarely seen in four decades, commentators called the report 'shocking' and 'bleak.' Most poverty experts would add another description: 'flawed.'
Concocted on the fly a half-century ago, the official poverty measure ignores ever more of what is happening to the poor person's wallet - good and bad. It overlooks hundreds of billions of dollars the needy receive in food stamps and other benefits and the similarly formidable amounts they lose to taxes and medical care. It even fails to note that rents are higher in places like Manhattan than they are in Mississippi.
On Monday, that may start to change when the Census Bureau releases a long-promised alternate measure meant to do a better job of counting the resources the needy have and the bills they have to pay. Similar measures, quietly published in the past, suggest among other things that safety-net programs have played a large and mostly overlooked role in restraining hardship: as much as half of the reported rise in poverty since 2006 disappears.
Coming amid soaring need and bitter debt debates, the findings in Monday's release are likely to offer fodder both to defenders of safety-net programs and fiscal conservatives who say the government already does much to temper hardship and needs to do no more.
Virtually every effort to take a fuller view - counting more income and more expenses - shows poverty rising more slowly in the recession than the official data suggests. That is true of localized studies in New York City and Wisconsin and at least four different national data sets that the Census Bureau publishes. While the official national measure shows a rise of 9.8 million people, the fuller census measures show a range from 4.5 million to 4.8 million.
Back when welfare reform was being debated in D.C., DeParle predicted apocalypse in the July 28, 1996 Week in Review, with poor mothers turning to prostitution, abandoning their children, or being forced to 'camp out on the streets and beg.'
If he signs the measure as it is, President Clinton will appear to have fulfilled his famous pledge about ending welfare. In truth, he will have abandoned the vision that animated the slogan. Having sought office with the aim of a redefined social contract - health care for every American - he will be seeking re-election with a bill that begrudges poor infants their Pampers....No doubt the harsh reality of an empty stomach will cause some people to do better. Some may indeed get jobs and marry, as [Fla. Rep. Clay] Shaw predicts. Others may turn to prostitution or the drug trade. Or cling to abusive boyfriends. Or have more abortions. Or abandon their children. Or camp out on the streets and beg.