Issue in Focus
Feb 16 2018
Since President Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty in 1964, the federal government has spent over $22 trillion on means-tested welfare programs. And what do we have to show for it?
When the official poverty rate was introduced in 1969, an estimated 12.8 percent of Americans were in poverty. According to the most recent data available, from 2016, that number is basically unchanged at 12.7 percent.
Progressives, of course, see these numbers and push for more programs and more spending. But there are some very good reasons to believe that today's official poverty rate is artificially inflated.
The main problem is that the tool the federal government uses to compile the official poverty rate (the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey) does not include the total value of federal benefits when measuring an individual's or a household's income. This leads to a dramatically distorted picture of poverty in America today, and it obscures the true cost and scope of the federal welfare state.
For instance, a 2015 study of New York residents found that today's official poverty rate "missed over one-third of housing assistance recipients, forty percent of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients, and sixty percent of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits."
If all of these federal benefits were included in the government's measurement of the official poverty rate, we would have a much clearer picture of the extent to which our federal antipoverty programs help our most vulnerable citizens. But we won't know exactly how much help our welfare programs provide until we have more accurate data. That's why I introduced the Poverty Measurement Improvement Act this week.
This bill would improve the data available to lawmakers by authorizing a new Census Bureau survey that would more accurately calculate income and poverty rates. The new survey would incorporate information on federal non-cash benefits, tax credits, and taxes, and estimates would be verified against individual records from the IRS and other federal agencies that administer means tested benefit programs.
The core problem with our welfare system today isn't just its bloated annual budget, but its tendency to undermine the two most dependable routes out of poverty: marriage and work.
But we can't improve these programs until we have better data on how they are affecting working families. The Poverty Measurement Improvement Act will do just that.