The Poverty of Nations

What the Census Bureau's new report says about the state of Obama's America


On September 13 at 10 a.m., the Census Bureau will release its annual report for 2010 on "Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States," and, to judge by the way the bureau is handling the announcement, it's going to be less than smashingly good news. "There will be no physical event," the bureau's advisory to reporters announces. Just a conference call, in a departure from the Bush administration's practice.

I could be wrong, and the Census could announce dramatic reductions in child poverty, dramatic increases in family income, and dramatic increases in the numbers of Americans covered by health insurance, not to mention report signs that the planet is beginning to heal. But I think that somehow, if that were coming out, the Obama administration would manage to figure out a way to devise a "physical event" with pictures sufficient to help get the word onto the evening news broadcasts.

Traditionally, the release of this report has been a moment for left-wing advocacy groups to bemoan poverty and call for more government spending to ameliorate it. Last year, for example, the Children's Defense Fund reacted to the Census release with a press release observing, "15.5 million children in America—or more than one in every five children—lived in poverty in 2009. This is an almost 10 percent increase over 2008." The release quoted the fund's president, Marian Wright Edelman, as saying, "It is incomprehensible and morally indefensible that while we are debating whether to extend an average tax cut of $100,000 a year for individuals earning over a million dollars annually, 15.5 million children are living in families who struggle everyday to survive on a fraction of that single tax cut."

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, another left-wing advocacy group that usually seizes on this release, is predicting that in this year's findings, "Poverty may well increase" and "The number and share of Americans without health coverage are likely to have hit record highs in 2010."

Traditionally, too, the release of the report has been a moment for more free-market-oriented research groups to point out that things aren't as bad as the Census data, and the left wing advocacy groups, make them seem. Even the Census itself makes clear that in defining poverty, it doesn't count capital gains or non-cash benefits such as food stamps or the value of public housing or Medicaid. Using more than a dozen alternative definitions, the percentages of American living in poverty can either be significantly greater or less than the standard, headline definition. The Census notes also that poverty is "primarily a temporary condition"—"While 29 percent of the nation's population was in poverty for at least two months between the start of 2004 and the end of 2006, only 3 percent were poor during the entire period."

The "poor," conservative commentators remind us, have air conditioning, color televisions, and microwave ovens, and many of them own cars. Those without health insurance coverage, some of these same commentators observe, could have it if they bothered to sign up for Medicaid, or if they were not illegal immigrants. And even those without health insurance can get medical care if they are sick by going to a hospital emergency room.

So what is new and worth paying attention to this year in the annual battle over the poverty rate and number of uninsured? One element is the politics of it. Last year, President Obama could get away with blaming President George W. Bush. Next year, he'll blame the Republican majority in the House of Representatives. But the statistics announced September 13, 2011, are for 2010, a year in which Mr. Obama's party, the Democrats, controlled both houses of Congress, and a year in which Mr. Obama's policies were already in full swing.

Mr. Obama's health care "reform" bill, for example, was signed into law on March 23, 2010, and the president repeatedly claimed that important provisions went into effect immediately. If the ranks of the uninsured nonetheless grew in 2010, it might suggest that the problems of the uninsured had less to do with the issues on "preexisting conditions" that Mr. Obama spent so much time talking about, and more to do with the economy that he hasn't been able to turn around as much as he had hoped.

Meanwhile, the nice thing about democracy is that it isn't entirely at the discretion of the president or his administration alone whether to stage a "physical event" to highlight a news release. If the news isn't markedly improved by next year, expect the Republican presidential nominee to mark the Census release with a Robert F. Kennedy or John Edwards-style tour of Appalachia or some similarly impoverished swing-state locale. President Obama may have it in his power to eliminate the annual Census press conference on poverty and the uninsured. But the poor have a way of staying with us, press conferences or not.

Ira Stoll is editor of and author of Samuel Adams: A Life.

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  1. Imagine… if the USA deported the illegals, about 15 million or so, that would cut unemployment down to half and think about all the kids that would save since they’d be going back to socialist paradises that promise free everything!

    Good with Obama and Amnesty proponents for 2012…

    1. I’m sure it would work wonders for our utterly spavined housing market, too.

      1. Housing market is where is deserves to be: lots of houses, not enough buyers. Thing called a bubble happened, which was caused essentially by the Federal Reserve. Statist policies at work.

        In other news, get a sarcasm detector.

        1. My sarcasm detector detects everything BUT sarcasm!

          Fucking thing thinks it’s funny!

    2. Imagine… how much it would cost (and how many people it would employ) to round up 15 million illegals or so, house them during processing and then transport them to their country of origin…

      This is a Paul Krugman idea isn’t it?

      1. If each illegal alien collected broke a window while trying to escape … YOU GENIUS! Some Guy for President! The campaign slogan will be — ‘An improvement over Obama’.

        Wait. Any guy can say that too. Oh well.

    3. “Imagine… if the USA deported the illegals, about 15 million or so, that would cut unemployment down to half…”

      Right, and unicorns would poop gold on us!
      Uh, let’s call bullshit, bullshit.

    4. Wow! Is that true? ’cause a lot of the customers of my small business are illegals and I’d have to layoff half my employees if you deported them.

      Also, I suspect that I would take trillions in government spending to round them up. I’d probably have to layoff the other half too.

      But, you may be right. Maybe, while we were deporting all the Mexicans we could also round up and deport all the racist xenophobes. Really fire up that job markek!

      1. Maybe you could do honest work instead. Horrors!

        1. Imagine… if the USA deported the illegals, about 15 million or so, that would cut unemployment down…

          Not that you’d care, Polish Knight, but most credible economists estimate that undocumented workers either slightly benefit the economy or at least offset their costs with the value of their cheap labor, the demand they create for housing and goods, and the amount they contribute in taxes.

          Yes, research reviewed by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that 50-75% of immigrants pay state and federal taxes.

          All totaled, the National Research Council estimates that the average illegal immigrant adds a net benefit of $89k for the economy every 10 years. (See Philip Martin’s first column about 1 page down.)

          But as I said, not that you’d care. Decrying their impact on the economy is just a convenient way to frame the truth: you just don’t like them.

          1. Except when they drive. I worked in subrogation collections for a few years. Anyone with a latin surname didn’t have car insurance. To get that, they’d have to have a social security number. So they left a trail of wrecked cars all across Ohio, with the cost picked up by the insured motorists.

            1. Would it have less impact on the economy if the cost was picked up by their insurers?

  2. How do they get these pictures? If I’m ever president, I’ll have a Mark Zuckerberg sort of relationship with the public, just to avoid the ridiculous pix.

    One could also argue that, if the government would GET THE **** OUT OF THE WAY, the poor could get themselves out of poverty. Looks at the numbers before and after the war on poverty began. Interesting that the downward trend of number of “poor” people in America just plain flatlined when WOP went into effect.

    1. *Look* at the numbers.

      1. Look at the numbers state-by-state. I assure you, friendo, that lower welfare does not equal lower poverty and higher welfare does not equal higher poverty.

        1. make a point, not an inference asshole

        2. Oops, I’se pregnant again. Mo checks!

  3. Maybe all those waivers of the ObamaCare provisions didn’t help much, either.

  4. Most over used stock photo…. evah.

    1. … and him tucking the napkin into his collar is a close second. Romney snapping on the gloves in the fudge shop is third.

      Maybe the interns could do a couple of new Google image searches on the candidates? Too much to ask?

      1. no, shadowboxing Obama is now in third place

  5. “Last year, for example, the Children’s Defense Fund reacted to the Census release with a press release observing, “15.5 million children in America?or more than one in every five children?lived in poverty in 2009. This is an almost 10 percent increase over 2008.”

    Maybe the ‘children’ could make some cash for themselves if they weren’t sweating it out in government-run brainwashing centers.

    1. They should be defending children from public K-12 and the future debt. Interesting how they seem to ignore the long term.

    2. Right, because the way to get out of poverty is to have no education and start work as a menial laborer. At what age should under-performing kids be put to work? 14? 12? 10?

      Also, calling public schools “brain-washing centers” indicates a level of melodrama that Glen Beck would approve of. Get a grip Hank.

      1. Yes, the poor rubes can’t fend for themselves, we must run their lives for them. It’s for their own good.

        1. No, of course a 10 year old girl can fend herself. How silly of me. Let’s let her run her own life and get the government out of the way.

  6. Well, this looks like it will be a let down. I just wanted to know how many people live in each state.

  7. The definition of poverty is so overwrought that none of this means anything anyway.

    Question for liberals and those who think “poverty” is a problem in america: how many americans were admitted to hospitals in 2010 for malnutrition? How many for preventable diseases like malaria, measles, polio, etc? How many people go without access to power, refrigeration, heat, shelter, and clothing?

    Hint: the answer is 0 or effectively 0.

    1. But, but, they could have so much more if the rich didn’t have so much!!!

  8. poverty stats are misleading. i myself fall into what they consider poverty and i am not poor not even close to being poor. same thing with kids going hungry. a family of 5 gets $600 a month food stamps kids eat breakfast and lunch at school and they hit the food bank up once a week. a large percentage of the food is wasted. parent to lazy to cook kids eat mostly expensive processed foods. this is an example from one side of my own family so i know its true

    1. “parent to lazy to cook kids eat mostly expensive processed foods”

      It’s not that I’m too lazy to cook kids, I’m simply too squeamish.

  9. illegal immigrants dont pay federal and state taxes. economically they are a net negative not to mention the fact that 45 billion is sent home annually thats 45 billion out of our economy. not to even mention the social cost.

  10. The Poverty of Nations…

    clever. 9.9

  11. If the welfare was stopped, period, more folks would be working. Stop the pay-outs from Washington to all the various ‘advocacy groups’ and all the rest of the free-loaders. Stop all the government crap that gets in the way of economic recovery. If you want me to stop taking my SS payments, fine; refund me all my payments. If you want me to stop getting my military retirement pay, fine; give me back the 24 years I spent in uniform and the health ‘issues’ I found along the way.

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