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Millions Not Really in Poverty Due to Government? You’re Welcome.

Last updated on 2013.10.07

Michael Woodring reads a Forbes contributor and frets that we're misusing the word poverty. The Forbes contributor grumbles that it is inaccurate to say that 15% of Americans live in poverty:

The 15% number is not the number living in poverty. It is the number who would be living in poverty if it weren’t for all the money n’stuff we give to the poor [Tim Worstall, "It Is Not True That 15% of Americans Live in Poverty,", 2013.10.06].

Woodring responds with this unexpected blast:

Words. Just words. Poverty is not something which can be defined by, by numbers. Rather, poverty is shown in the human spirit crushed by the juggernaut of capitalism and the bloody bullion of the moneylenders [Michael Woodring, "Poverty of Meaning," Constant Conservative, 2013.10.07].

At least we agree on the deleterious effects of capitalism and moneylenders (Pastor Hickey! Don't let the usurers trick you!).

As for the word poverty... I'm having trouble seeing Worstall's or Woodring's point, unless it is simply to toss some swill to the hogs. Of course we define poverty as a number, just like tax brackets and other categories essential to carrying out government policy. Of course we calculate poverty prior to receipt of government assistance: it would make no sense to say, "Gee, if we include the value of food stamps and Medicaid for which you qualify based on your earned income, your total income would be higher than the poverty line... so we're not going to give you food stamps and Medicaid."

And of course we are all richer as a nation if we can use our vast wealth to ensure that no one ends up living in poverty. If our community efforts render the phrase "living in poverty" inaccurate and obsolete, then we should celebrate. We should take pride in keeping our neighbors from being crushed in the wheels of capitalism. And we should thank Democrats and elect more of them, since Republicans evidently think it's more important to keep sculptures and parks open than to feed the poor.

Contrary to Worstall's assertion, none of this means we should stop saying that people are living in poverty. We can understand the term to mean that we are helping feed and clothe millions of people whose employers don't pay them enough to feed their kids breakfast. We can use that term to remind employers that they are hoarding wealth that belongs to the workers whom they exploit, and that we as a community have cause to ask them pay society back, through taxes and higher wages.

Worstall and Woodring's word game is trivial compared to the reality of poverty in America. Poverty is real. Capitalism leaves millions of its workers in poverty. Instead of denying or, worse, punishing poverty, Americans should continue to give money 'n' stuff, through good government policy, to alleviate poverty.


  1. MJL 2013.10.08

    Actually the poverty rate would be much hire without government programs.

    A CBPP analysis shows that government safety net programs kept some 25 million people out of poverty in 2010. Without any government income assistance, either from safety net programs or other income supports like Social Security, the poverty rate would have been 28.6 percent in 2010, nearly double the actual 15.5 percent.

  2. Winston 2013.10.08

    So in other words, a conservative rag is highlighting the importance of the welfare safety net... a net which they and their political cohorts are always trying to destroy... go figure.

  3. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.10.08

    Wait a minute, MJL: are you saying that not only are Worstall and Woodring playing a word game, but their initial assertion is wrong? The 15% number already takes into account all the aid we offer and excludes the people whom our government assistance raises from poverty to something less burdensome than poverty?

  4. Joan Williams 2013.10.08

    Wealthy Americans, even if they're smart AND lucky, can thank capitalism for their money. They should feel some obligation to do something useful to repay the society that helped them accumulate their wealth.

  5. jerry 2013.10.08

    Frank Lutz probably did some focus group meetings to come up with his new wordssmith game and then passed it to this bozohead. In the meantime, whatever they may wish to call the situation about those that are in it, they are suffering. Suffering in the great land of opportunity to eat. A land that raises grain to power vehicles and to force feed animals to feed the privileged while they go without. Something is wrong with this picture.

  6. Donald Pay 2013.10.08

    Yes, the USA has a social safety net that alleviates the most devastating impacts of poverty. I consider that one of the reasons this country is exceptional.

    Very few "poor" people in our country fall into destitution, and those folks who do are generally not mentally stable or capable. But don't fool yourself that the safety net lifts people into some middle class lifestyle. At most, it provides food that lasts just about to the end of the month, a rent subsidy so we don't have millions of homeless wandering the streets and Medicaid, which provides health care. Much of this aid, although it benefits the poor, ends up in the hands of the local grocer, the landlord and medical professionals.

    So, the social safety net ends up benefitting the local economy. It also tends to decrease desperation that leads to criminal acts, thus reducing the costs of incarceration, which would be borne by taxpayers. And it helps prevent widespread outbreaks of diseases that would eventually hit the middle class and wealthy.

    I work to help people who have to access the safety net. Most of them work. Some work 2 or more jobs, but they do not have the skills or ability to work at a position that would provide a living wage. Without the social safety net these people would just be warehoused somewhere, like the are in, say, Russia. If you want that sort of life, move there. As for me, I like the being in the exceptional USA.

  7. Billy Jack Liberals 2013.10.08

    Hear Hear, Mr. Donald Pay...

  8. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.10.08

    That Frank Lutz comparison makes sense, Jerry! It sounds very much like meme-smithing.

    By the way, also from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: the Earned Income Tax Credit, Medicaid, and SNAP together lift millions out of poverty and promote work.

  9. Bill Dithmer 2013.10.08

    Great post Donald

  10. Becky Froehlich 2013.10.08

    So people in poverty aren't getting their benefits or the "money n’stuff we give to the poor" counted as part of their income in factoring who's in poverty and who's not in America. It's not income. You can't spend it the way that the census considers income. It makes perfect sense that the 15% are considered "in poverty". I would think people know that, so Worstall's not really saying anything new. I mean, it's good to make the point that food stamps and government aid do lift some people out of poverty (since that's incentive to NOT cut them), but it definitely doesn't justify saying that the rate of poverty is really 0%. Especially when he's measuring by consumption poverty, not by absolute or relative poverty which are the actual concerns addressed by aid. If he's really worried about the 15% statistic misleading how we're compared to the rest of the world, he should consider how feminized America's poor is despite how developed it is as a country and how large the relative child poverty gap is here. There are different threshold's he's not even addressing.

    What I'm saying is this is definitely the "Forbes" view of poverty and I'm not even sure what the point of writing the article was. It appears there were a lot of economist articles arguing from the same consumption poverty standpoint... while not bothering to calculate how liveable the wages are being earned by the working poor.

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