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.